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Californians flock to the 'Disneyland' of climate change

Hundreds of delegates from nonprofits, state and local government and green-tech firms are making the rounds in Copenhagen, sitting on panels, schmoozing with other policy wonks and buying furry hats.

December 16, 2009|By Margot Roosevelt

Reporting from Copenhagen — Jake Mackenzie, a city councilman from Rohnert Park, Calif., is looking forward to telling the world about Sonoma County's efforts to combat climate change -- he even has an appointment with a Scottish official to talk about harnessing energy from waves.

So what if a few local critics have raised eyebrows about the $22,500 cost of sending a seven-person delegation from Sonoma County to Copenhagen?

"Our message is, 'Hey U.N., we deserve a place at the table,' " Mackenzie said.

No final treaty is likely to emerge from the frenzied negotiations between 190 nations at the two-week global climate conference. And the U.S. will be unable to commit to signing a treaty until Congress makes up its mind on climate legislation.

But that hasn't dampened the enthusiasm of the hundreds -- if not thousands -- of Californians at the conference, including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa as well as academic superstars, green-tech gurus, environmentalists and college students.

Along with 40,000 climate policy junkies from around the world, they have flocked to Copenhagen to schmooze, show off, pontificate on policy panels and, in some cases, lobby for a better climate treaty.

As the world's seventh-largest economy, California attracts attention. But what Golden Staters are boasting about here is our first-in-the-nation comprehensive climate legislation, our first-in-the-world low-carbon-fuel standard, and our highest-in-the nation renewable energy requirements.

"Why do we put so many hopes and eggs into the big international agreement basket?" Schwarzenegger asked some 600 journalists and delegates in a speech Tuesday at the conference's Bella Center headquarters. "According to the U.N. itself, up to 80% of greenhouse-gas mitigation will be done at the subnational level."

To drive home the point, he announced a new "coalition to fast-track the results" of the U.N. Climate Change Conference, joining with regional officials from 20 nations including Algeria, Canada, France and Nigeria.

None of the Californians are involved in the actual negotiations, which are led by diplomats behind closed doors. "Interacting with a delegate is about as likely as a comet colliding with a planet," said Margaret Bruce, director of the Center for Climate Action, a California-based nonprofit.

But that's not the idea. At hundreds of side panels, conferences, receptions and exhibits, everyone who is anyone in the world of carbon control gets a chance to rub shoulders with other players.

"This is Disneyland for policy wonks," said Gary Gero, president of the Los Angeles-based Climate Action Reserve, a nonprofit that designs protocols for greenhouse gas offsets.

But "climateland" isn't all amusement. On a snowy Monday, a breakdown in credentialing left more than 1,000 delegates from nonprofit groups shivering in line outside the Bella Center for nine hours, only to be turned away as logistics broke down.

Tuesday was hardly better, with lines extending seven hours.

Mike Chrisman, California's secretary for natural resources and one of three Schwarzenegger cabinet officials attending the conference, arrived at the center promptly at 9 a.m. Monday, but soon left, discouraged by the long lines. The cabinet members were able to enter the center at least for a few hours on Tuesday, as part of Schwarzenegger's entourage.

Nonetheless, the California cabinet heads spent a busy few days meeting with U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and other federal officials, serving on panels on sea-level rise, climate adaptation, subnational cooperation and, in the case of state Food and Agriculture Secretary A. G. Kawamura, blogging about the experience.

Linda Adams, environmental protection secretary, found time to sign an agreement with the Danish environment minister to collaborate on green chemistry.

California businesses were also out in force, from Patagonia to Hewlett-Packard to Pacific Gas & Electric. Solazyme, a San Francisco firm, squired around 200 delegates from Mexico, South Africa, Nigeria and India in a fleet of cars fueled with algae-derived biodiesel.

"We need clear market signals from governments on the future cost of carbon," said Solazyme President Harrison Dillon, who favors a strong climate treaty.

Villaraigosa arrived Monday night with a retinue of seven, including Board of Water and Power Commissioner Thomas Sayles and Port of Los Angeles Executive Director Geraldine Knatz. The $120,000 trip, which includes stops for some officials in London and Berlin to promote trade, will be paid for by the port and the DWP, said Villaraigosa spokeswoman Sarah Hamilton.

The mayor's schedule included a reception with Danish Crown Prince Frederik, a spot on a panel on public-private partnerships with the flamboyant entrepreneur and Virgin Group founder Richard Branson, and a private get-together with officials from Maersk shipping line, a major player in California's port politics.

Among those stranded without credentials Monday was Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley), who blogged about her experience. "It's not looking good for those of us without badges to get in," she wrote, adding, "I'm a bit sad" to miss events at the center with fellow politicians.

But later she was off to dinner at the U.S. Embassy with U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Schwarzenegger and other officials, wearing a Danish-made furry hat. "I look like a wookie but my head and ears are warm," she wrote.

margot.roosevelt @latimes.com

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