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Climate Chess: A Filmmaker Dives Into Copenhagen's Climate Change Chaos

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Day 1

I write from a cramped seat on Finnair, heading for Copenhagen. I sit behind the starboard wing, my chest rumbling from roaring engines as they suck up fuel and spew out CO2. Around the cabin, 300 video screens set sleeping faces aglow. My computer is warm to the touch as its battery drains. So much carbon. It makes me wonder: How can there be an agreement? What is truly possible? What surprises will players bring to the game?

Six months ago, it was a different story. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Copenhagen talks were to be the defining moment of our conflicted--if not troubled--environmental times. The science had "settled," accepted even in the halls of business, where carbon-polluting giants like Duke Energy left the US Chamber of Commerce in protest over the Chamber's denial of climate science. Congress deliberated on an energy bill that would finally bridge the divide between America and most of the world in limiting carbon emissions. And at Copenhagen, a fair and binding global treaty would be reached.

I was to capture that story on film, the tale of a decades-long chess tournament where skilled players from governments to industry, carbon traders to climatologists, global warming skeptics to climate activists have approached the chessboard to make their moves. There have been dominating kings and manipulated pawns, stalwart rooks and knights in shining armor. After years of moves that have at times brought progress and other times derailed it, a deal in Copenhagen would be the trophy, establishing market-driven solutions that would stimulate economies and save the planet--a win for all.

Then the carbon hit the turbine.

As it turns out, Congress' carbon reductions are woefully below what scientists deem necessary. Al Gore conceded that there would not likely be a treaty. One hundred and thirty developing countries (the G77) have threatened to walk out. Leaked e-mails shed doubt over scientific analysis, creating a public relations tornado. A progressive Philippine negotiator was removed from her delegation shortly after a high-level visit by Hilary Clinton. President Obama continues to flip-flop on his attendance at the conference. And 100,000 impassioned activists gear up for the streets, demanding that civil society play a larger role in setting policy, with goals that are certain to make the developed world cringe.

Verdi couldn't have written an opera as wrought with high-stakes human conflict. And as a filmmaker, I find myself shooting from the hip, no longer knowing the heart of the story, let alone the outcome. The chess game is far from over.

Day 3

The Bella Center is a massive complex of boxed buildings linked by long, convoluted passageways. Except for one central space, it's horribly ugly, but the media/press center is something to behold, and becomes home for our crew of three. There are hundreds of laptops, audio feeds and video booths for the press. It's easy to spot the filmmakers--our cameras are small, our budgets are smaller. Already, I've met filmmakers from 12 countries, shooting with everything from cheap camcorders to the newest high-definition cameras.

The size of the complex and spontaneous rapid-fire setups demands flexibility with gear. We check our coats along with the camera bag and tripod case to lighten up the load. Backpacks act as run bags, and heavier gear remains at the apartment. So far, we've been very well outfitted for all our impromptu needs.


Filmmaker David Novack (center) with his crew in Copenhagen.
Photo: Chris Chandler. Courtesy of Firefly Pix

The greater challenge is figuring out what to shoot. Each morning we map out a course of action that is ultimately derailed by all kinds of dramatic developments and assertions. Today, the Danes were blasted over a "leaked text" that excludes the demands of the developing world. The G77 threatened to walk. The Danes tightened border control to stop demonstrators for next week's massive disruption. Rumors fly that the Kyoto Protocol may be scrapped. A 3:00 a.m. dorm raid resulted in arrests and confiscation of trespassing tools. And the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced they would regulate CO2 as a pollutant, overstepping Congress' weak reduction targets. With today's developments we must capture on-the-fly interviews with the people involved. This speaks strongly to the chess game--constant moves played on a shifting board, every day. That means keeping an eye on the big picture, trying to get what serves the heart of the film best. But finding the heart--I'm not there yet. I'm still spinning from an ever-changing game.

Day 6

I've been filming the Climate Justice Fasters, hunger strikers from around the world, who are on day 36 of water alone. They've been video-blogging for me since they started, so I can develop a longer narrative. Today, they don't look so great, and they carefully consider medical advice urging them to protect brain function with B-vitamins. Tonight we'll interview them back on the cruise ship they temporarily call home. Amidst the conference's swarm of jockeying and manipulation, the Fasters experience a kind of pure high ground, rooted in clarity of ethics. But what drives their unsurpassed commitment to the climate? What if there isn't a deal, and they have hurt their bodies irreparably? I want to hear their thoughts on process and outcome.

Increasingly, I'm drawn to those from places most affected by climate change: small island nations like Kiribati and Tuvalu, which lose land with every high tide and have planned for mass evacuation; Kenya and Uganda, where the predictability of seasons has vanished, impoverishing people who can no longer grow food reliably, and killing untold thousands from drought; Bangladesh and Northern India, where violent storms from the ocean kill, while the Himalayan glaciers recede and diminish fresh water supplies; and indigenous peoples worldwide who suffer the life-threatening effects of pollution from fossil fuel extraction--a subject I know well from my film Burning the Future: Coal in America. Many of these "climate witnesses" are under 30 years old. They have a great deal to say about environmental justice and climate debt, false solutions, multinational corporate dominance, growing poverty and, of course, energy. It's a completely different paradigm than I had considered.


A demonstration in the halls of the UN Climate Conference in Copenhagen
Photo: David Novack. Courtesy of Firefly Pix

Tonight, I filmed a meeting of 35 youth leaders from countries on the climate front lines. It was also a casting session for me, as I hone in on subjects to follow for the year. Looking at these intelligent young adults, speaking English as a common language, hashing out differences as they work to form a cohesive group, every shade of color and shape of face and hair type and accent...I'm inspired, and definitely moving towards the heart of the film. Or it's moving towards me.

Day 10

Today I interviewed high-level representatives of NGOs, governments, science panels and industry. It's getting easier, because the halls are getting quieter. The UN has locked out most of civil society--a fascinating chess move that is sure to cause resentment. Fortunately, we have press accreditation and pretty unlimited access.

The G77 continues to be a game-changer. Their position, backed by science, demands a global temperature increase of 1.5 degrees C. In a briefing to northern environmental NGOs, the majority of whom back a 2 degree C rise, Lumumba Di-Aping of the G77 warns, "You have become instruments of your governments." It's a bold move; 1.5 degrees translates into 52 percent carbon reductions by 2017 and well above 100 percent by 2050, or as Lumumba puts it, we will "condemn millions to immeasurable suffering." The US proposes 4 percent by 2020. That leaves quite a gap.


Kenya's Wahu Kaara speaking at the conference.
Photo: David Novack. Courtesy of Firefly Pix

The conference is evolving into a war between the North and the South. The North avoids concrete targets and advances market strategies with tradable financial instruments. The South objects: "This isn't a climate deal, it's a trade deal." In one closed meeting we filmed, developing nations prepared to move climate change into a pure human rights issue, arguing genocide. Genocide! This language has not come up before in climate discussions. It's another interesting move on the chessboard.

Day 13

We feel like we've run a marathon. If I had $5 for each time we raced down the Bella Center corridor with gear in tow, Climate Chess would be financed. Still, we've managed to get great interviews representing the full spectrum of voices on the issue. We've captured dramatic presentations from people affected by climate change, lining them up for deeper exploration though 2010. And we've documented massive protests and non-violent civil disobedience, plus violent confrontations with police that yielded arrests of over a thousand.

It's a start. Now, I plan the year--documenting the chess moves played between Copenhagen and next December's conference in Mexico City--where hope for a meaningful treaty to solve the climate crisis now rests. I will show the solutions offered by the North and the South, from carbon trading to clean energy development, local farming, building and efficiency standards, green jobs programs, electric car fleets and a myriad of creative ideas sparked by entrepreneurs and environmentalists alike. I will explore the politics at home and abroad as expectations for Mexico evolve over the year. I will film those on the front lines in Bangladesh, Africa and the Pacific islands, allowing them to tell their stories and rooting the film in human struggles and survival. And I will follow the global youth climate movement in whose hands the future rests, as they will surely live to witness our collective prosperity or demise.

The Copenhagen Accord brokered in Denmark will be touted as a success by some and a failure by others. Nations on both sides of the North/South divide will be blamed for blocking a better outcome. And as the year unfolds, the players will reposition for the continuation of the match while the planet continues to warm. In retrospect, this was not simply a convention dealing with planetary warming. It was a momentary stop on a traveling chess tournament where intellect, humanism, power and the underpinnings of societies clash. This is the new heart of my film--for our global climate chess match has become proxy for an infinitely more intricate one: the state of our collective human civilization.

David Novack's feature documentary Burning the Future: Coal in America was awarded the IDA's 2008 Pare Lorentz Award and the Society of Environmental Journalism's top prize for in-depth reporting. Production for Climate Chess began in December 2009.

This article originally appeared in the January 2010 edition of Documentary Online, a publication of the International Documentary Association.

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