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Slacktivism Strikes Back

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The lady in the mermaid suit struggled to keep up with the dance troupe, but her companion in the tuxedo managed his leg kicks with aplomb. The song and dance flourish capped the latest Fossil of the Day awards, a mock celebration of laggard nations at the Copenhagen climate summit. The mermaid graced a token Canadian representative with a silver cup filled with coal as first-place "dishonoree" in recognition of Canada's "paltry" emissions targets.

On cue, the crowd responded with grinning boos. Satire sells, especially after long days of self-important speechifying at Copenhagen's climate summit.

The activists inside the UN climate change summit are relatively few--a robust fence and police cordon keep the majority of the tree-hugging hordes at bay--but they put on a good show.

A set of two enormous inflatable doors greeted delegates near the entrance of the convention hall last week. The fork in the road offers an impossibly tough choice: a green door to "Vote Earth" or a red door to "Vote warming." Take the green door and activists laud you with high fives from giant inflatable hands. Take the red door and, well, no one really walks through the red door. One young delegate typing furiously on his blackberry took no notice of the inflated props and came perilously close to walking through the infernal red door--until a volunteer put her hand on his back and yelped "Watch where you're going!" He smiled, pivoted and chose the righteous path.

Dour aliens, complete with green face paint and white jumpsuits, prowl the event with signs to "Take me to your real deal." Elsewhere delegates take turns posing for pictures with a stern-faced troupe in immaculate red suits and black hats bearing signs instructing wealthy countries to "pay your climate debt."

This is all part of a theatrical battle for the hearts of the press corps, if not the minds of the delegates shaping the agreement. But the activist pyrotechnics at the conference in Copenhagen are arguably a sideshow, however striking the photo-ops or impressive the headlines they produce. The real power of these organizations might lie with their supporters sitting in front of their computers at home, on call to pressure their domestic leaders. A new wave of NGOs represent a growing e-constituency with ever more international reach and capacity to respond even to arcane policy debates at climate change negotiations.

Avaaz.org sits at the forefront of this new model of online international advocacy. Founded in 2007, it now claims 3.6 million members hailing from nearly all the countries in the world. The head office is based in New York, but the United States is home to only 10% of members. Europe accounts for some 40% of members, with other major concentrations in Brazil, Canada, Australia and South Africa. This is globalized activism for a multipolar world.

Ricken Patel, Avaaz's founder, claims he can organize members "in all timezones and in 14 languages." A skeptic might sniff at the image of couch potatoes with a zeal for clicking their mouses, slack-tivists with a cause but little commitment.

Avaaz organizers beg to differ. Members constitute an impressive fundraising base. A single e-mail on Tuesday has since netted over $150,000. There is also the ability to mobilize a political constituency in almost every major political power in the world. In response to a move in the German Parliament to restrict financing to developing countries as part of a new climate deal, Avaaz drew up an e-mail "blast." Last Tuesday night at 6 PM, Avaaz contacted 16,000 of its German members. By 11 AM the next morning, organizers claim some 6,000 had sent messages to Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Will this latest incarnation of international activism have a decisive impact on the outcome of the climate negotiations? The gulf between citizens and power remains impossibly large at the UN talks. A Greenpeace poster ably summed the situation on the first day of the conference: "Our future. Our planet. Your decision."

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