Freitag, 31. August 2007

ECO therapy - with some effect?

It’s not easy to explain plainly what I and other civil society reps actually do for all the long hours we spend at international environmental negotiations. After a week in Vienna, I am not entirely sure where all the time has gone. All I know is that, yet again, I didn’t see Vienna - the metro and the street our hotel was on aside … The world of global climate talks is a world of rumour chasing, coffee drinking, constant huddles and meetings – with country delegations, with other NGOs, with the rest of the Greenpeace crowd. Press releases need to be discussed, drafted and then often enough redrafted as the negotiations have already moved on. People who are not at the talks but in national Greenpeace offices need to be kept informed of what’s going on – and motivated to do something, if it happens to be their government that is acting up. There is a fair amount of sitting in big windowless rooms listening to boring speeches (one country that shall remain nameless this week had the cheek to give the same presentation for the third time in the course of recent negotiations!). The challenge is to wake up again when something really outrageous happens – and to then react quickly. Like yesterday, when Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Switzerland and Russia suddenly suggested that increasing the globe’s mean temperature by, say, 4 degrees would be acceptable. Mistaking the climate negotiations for a “who can be the most cynical” contest, they insisted that the option of microwaving the world should be alive on the climate negotiating table. Silly me, and I thought these negotiations were about protecting the climate – not killing it.

4 degrees may sound abstract. But the impacts of such a temperature hike are not. A 4 degree warmer world would eliminate most of the glaciers in the Alpine region (Switzerland), virtually destroy the entire Alpine flora of hundreds of species (New Zealand), cause massive degradation of permafrost regions and a major increase in droughts in main agricultural regions (Russia), risk major dislocation and damage due to sea level rise (Japan) and deliver major water resource losses and destruction of the arctic ecosystem and species (Canada). All in all, it wouldn’t be pretty …

One way in which we react to the follies of our governments at these international negotiations is through producing our own newsletter – ECO. ECO has a proud tradition – ECO was first produced at the first Earth Summit in Stockholm in 1972. It is produced overnight for delegates to read in the morning – and a remarkable number of them can be seen doing just. As ECO is for delegates, the language is not that of the tabloids. It’s techy, policy wonkish -but it is always also tongue in cheek … Editing ECO is a licence to be sarcastic and indulge in black humour.

ECO is hard work. The two nights this week that I helped with editing it, I got to bed at 2am. But ECO is also therapy. ECO means sitting around with like-minded people from around the world, trying to find witty ways in which to put across our outrage and anger – and our hopes for what the negotiations could deliver. Editing ECO is a team effort and one that involves a lot of laughs as well as beer (as the above picture of fellow editor Red Constantino shows …). Who knows , may be reading ECO helped. For at least governments made a small step forward in Vienna today.

Montag, 27. August 2007

No time to waste - and see the sun

Vienna is beautiful, but the Austrian Centre Vienna - the conference centre where some 1000 delegates this week are negotiating on climate change - is not. For the rest of this week, I will be stuck inside, in non-descript rooms with no windows. At least this morning the sun was shining as we stood outside to welcome delegates with a balloon, a banner and a chocolate bar. The cholocate was a gift - but also a reminder that real progress on climate change commitments will need to be the result of this week in Vienna - if we are to avoid the Road to Hell. Climate delegates are used to being harassed (and indeed to being given gifts), of course; so the whole thing was a good-natured affair with people stopping for a chat and our 300 chocolates disappearing quickly. Let's hope the delegates remember what they need to do once they have finished their chocolates ...

Donnerstag, 23. August 2007

Space is a battleground ...

I am not feeling great today (fighting a cold) so I was relaxing over a nice slice of pizza on the beautiful street I live in tonight. It was wonderful. The street is lively, yet there is little car traffic, so little noise. The excitement comes from the diverse people passing by. Tonight, for example, there was a cute student couple, a tiny chocolate-coloured girl (proving that Nietzsche was right: mixing races creates the highest beauty). There were teachers discussing their students and tourists enthralled at having found this little gem of a neighbourhood (good on them, but I hope there won't be too many more ;-)). Trees line the street and give the street an 'Allee-character'. So, I was just about to forget my cough and idealize my neighbourhood when the waitress in one of my favourite bars (of all places!), chased away a couple eating pizza - from the new, quirky pizza place that opened recently - on "their bench". How petty. How stupdid. How crap.
But space, of course, is always contested - and increasinly privatized. Whenever I walk through cities I know well, I bore my companions by recounting the mass killings of beautiful spaces that the last few years of rampant urban capitalism have sprung upon us. On Edinburgh, I could write a whole book of obituaries for cafes and pubs that I once loved and that have since been shut down or, perhaps worse, been turned into theme pubs and/or bought up by chains. In Berlin - as a visiting American colleague remarked over lunch yesterday - there are now Dunkin Donuts and Starbucks bloody everywhere. They didn't used to exit 5-10 years ago. (Worse, some of my friends even love them!)
Berlin is also getting more and more malls built. Most people now visiting Potsdamer Platz - including myself, often enough - are not their to marvel at Enzo Piano's architecture or at an urban space created (if in a corporate image) on the most famous 'no man's land' the Cold War era knew. No, they - we - are there to shop at the Potsdamer Platz Arkaden with piped in music and rents that ensure that only big chain stores can offer "choice" to us hapless consumers ...
But space - especially high quality public space - is a good worth fighting for. I was most recently reminded of this in Calgary - where non-corporate space is hard to find (and when you find it, usually run down). I missed it. The lack of places to sit, observe and linger quite simply depressed me!
Democracy needs places where democratic interaction can take place. Democracy - no matter how many lively debates and exchanges happen on the web - needs public space. Let's fight for it. Let's make creating livable, human spaces - our 'war'.
P.S. The picture is a detail of a funky bus at the Edinburgh Festival. The people running it were quite possibly spaced out, but the slogan is still cool.

Mittwoch, 22. August 2007

Come on, murder a pint ...

I love the Caledonian Brewery of Edinburgh. They produce a fine organic ale, called Golden Promise, which is drinkable like a lager but has a pleasant bitter tinge. I love their '80' - probably the beer I drank most 'out on the town' when I was living in Edinburgh. And now, on the occasion of the Inspector Rebus novels turning 20, they have done me and all Rebus fans a favour and produced a special Rebus ale. What a fun idea. If you know Rebus, you will know he loves his pint. So this is a fitting tribute. Even better: After sampling it I can confirm that it is a very nice, fruity ale. I suspect, though, Rebus may find it a little too posh (he would add some whisky!). It's got a gingerly flavour to it - and certainly deserves to not just be an anniversary gimmick, but a long term addition to Caledonian's brewing range!

Dienstag, 21. August 2007

I am not Potter, but I am grateful for the Harry Potter hype!

It happened in 2005. I walked into the Hong Kong Greenpeace office for the first time and someone said: "Look, it's Harry Potter". I have no idea why. May be it was my glasses. May be it was a case of "all white Europeans looking alike" (just as many Europeans can't quite keep Asians apart). For better, or - in my humble opinion - worse, the name has stuck. In Asian Greenpeace offices, I am now referred to as Potter. I wish I had his magical powers! Aside from wiping out all memories of anyone ever referring to me as Harry, I would save the climate with the stroke of my wand. I could retire to my roof terrace ...
Back in the real world, I finally finished Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows last night. I liked it, but I was not impressed with the ending. I expected Harry to survive. But to add a full last chapter about how he lives happily ever after and calls his kids after his parents, Dumbledore and Snape ... May be it's me, but I found it utterly unnecessary and unbearably cheeeeeeeesy. It was proof, if such proof was needed, that Harry Potter is a good read (mostly) - but it's quality can clearly not account for its historically unique popularity.
Despite this disappointing end and my personal grudge against being called Potter ... I am nonetheless a great fan of the Potter phenomenon. Not just because J.K. Rowling is very likeable and seems to have her heart in the right place. Harry Potter, I believe, will ultimately not be remembered for his Quidditch skills or his cute longing for Ginny, but for having introduced part of the internet generation to: the book (and a forest-destruction-free-book at that!).
When I bought the last Potter at Cafe Books in Canmore, I was told that at midnight the night before kids had quequed for hours. In this town of 10,000, over 200 people - mostly parents with kids - came out to give a mere book a pop star treatment (and similar things happened all around the world). I am biased, of course - I am the son of a librarian, after all - but to me books will always be special. Don't get me wrong: I clearly love the Internet. It is not an 'either you are for books or you are for modern technology' kind of dichotomy. But, I suspect, many kids would not have touched a book, if it had not been for the Harry Potter hype. Harry Potter has ensured that a whole generation of 'GameBoy kids' has experienced the wonder that comes from diving into a book for hours. In my book, that is the achievement that the marketing departments behind Harry's phenonmenal success should be most proud of! May more books get the Harry treatment and become pop stars! (And, on a different note, may publishers then have the guts to use those profits to also publish less hype-able material!)
P.S. The picture was taken at the Lego Discovery Centre in Berlin. A corporate space, for sure, but a fun one!

Dienstag, 14. August 2007


I haven't been home for more than 15 days a month yet this year. July, the record month, I only spent 5 nights in Berlin. No wonder friends often ask why I bother paying for a beautiful and spacious flat. In July, certainly, staying at a Hotel would have been more cost-effective.
To me, however, the thesis that 'global' and 'local' go together (which was very fashionable in planning and geography circles when I last bothered to read that literature ...) is not mere talk. It's my reality. The fact that I am globalized makes me much more committed to the 'local' - be it my flat, my neighbourhood ('Kiez'), or even Berlin. I spend so much time on the road and in anonymous, non-descript spaces, that just coming home to a beautiful flat is a wonderful, indeed needed antidote. Even better when the weather is nice and I can cycle home from the office along the canal. Relaxation certainly starts when walking into the very bright and open living room(/kitchen) I currently live in. On a good day, it continues with looking at the flowers on the balcony and overlooking Berlin from the roof terrace. So this piece is really just an excuse to upload some pretty impressions of that reality. I can never quite explain what the German word "Heimat" means. But Kreuzberg and my flat is what it means to me - just now, anyway.

Montag, 13. August 2007

I wish I was at Heathrow ...

Like most of the travelling public, I hate Heathrow. It's overcrowded, cluttered, the queues and air keep getting worse - and, in any case, it is a huge source of noise and pollution. I once remember being in Kew Gardens trying to escape the noise of central London when I was living there. I was unlucky with the wind and hence all flights to Heathrow were flying over Kew. The trip turned out to be less quiet and relaxing than staying in an airport hotel; the most exotic bird I saw, incidentally, was a Concorde ...
So, I just don't go to Heathrow - I avoid that place like the plague. But this week, I would like to be there to join the Camp for Climate Action. Activists from all over the place are standing up to the BAA bullies and are showing the world that it is time to wake up to the impacts of aviation. Good!

Donnerstag, 9. August 2007

Yes! King Coal falls in Bremen

Across the world, Germany is considered to be terribly green. This is mainly due to us being obsessive about our garbage, I guess. In recent years, it may also have had something to do with our wind and solar industries booming and with German leaders talking tough at international climate negotiations.
The reality is, however, that Germans emit more CO2 per year even than most Europeans. Every fifth German job, or so, depends on the car industry, and old- style industries, such as coal and chemicals, are still very important to our economy. Our fossil-fuel hungry utilities, meanwhile, have a complete stranglehold over our politicians - mainly because their bosses and our politicians tend to be chums (or, indeed, the same people ...).
Of course, it is wonderful that Germany is saying the right things, mostly, at international climate negotiations. But our record at home is - especially in that context - highly hypocritical, embarrassing even. We still expand roads and airports like there is no tomorrow. And it could all get much worse in coming months and years, as many of our energy production plants near the end of their life. Many utilities are considering replacing them with new coal plants. This would tie Germany further into fossil-fuel dependency and would make achieving our national climate targets a trifle difficult.
Now is the time to take a different path and to start a true renewable energy revolution. Luckily, local opposition - with a strength the German environmental movement has not seen for a while - is forming to stop the 27 (or so) new coal plants that are planned. And yesterday, there was the first success! Bremen's utility, swb, announced that they will not go ahead with a new coal plant. This, as the local Friends of the Earth group says, is "the right decision that shows the way to the future". Let's hope so. And let's kill every single one of those 27 plants!
P.S. The map above is taken from BUND Bremen.

Dienstag, 7. August 2007

A lovely evening - but what really mattered, of course, was the Derby victory!

It was a fine evening in Berlin last night. A little windy but warm enough, at last, to have dinner on the roof. Lovely people came around for a dinner of home made pesto (which Kathrin had made with herbs harvested on our terrace!) and we watched, Strip Jack, the last of the wonderful (if not at all faithful to the book ...) TV adaptations of Ian Rankin's Rebus novels. In honour of Rebus we also had a fine glass of whisky (or two).
Truth be told, though, what really made me happy last night was something I did not experience at all. It was seeing the result 'Hearts 0 - Hibernian 1' appear on my computer screen before I went to bed. Hibs did well in their first game in the season (though true to form not well enough for the coach, John Collins). And they beat local Edinburgh rivals Hearts - which is, of course, always a particular joy!
There can be no rational explanation for football fandom. But the reality is, that my mood is certainly - and sometimes considerably - influenced by how Hibernian Football Club fairs in the Scottish Premier League.
The picture above, meanwhile, shows me handing out press releases at the WTO meeting in Cancun wearing a Hibs shirt. The collapse of the trade talks had come unexpectedly quickly, so I was still wearing my fan attire rather than my suit ;-) ...

Montag, 6. August 2007

Bush saves climate, really!

It was Murphy's Law at work last Friday. For once, I had left the office early (to go for a wonderful kayaking weekend in Mecklenburg with my dad). Of course, when I am out in the middle of nowhere is the moment Bush breaks the news that he is to host a conference of the 15 or so biggest CO2 emitters in the world on September 27th-28th in Washington. My wonderful colleague John Coequyt in DC thankfully dealt with all the media frenzy. I was left quietly rejoicing at the first real action on climate change I have ever witnessed by President Bush. By choosing those September dates, Bush will save me an extra flight to the US. The same is no doubt true of countless others in Environment Ministries’, think tanks and NGOs. On September 24th most of us will already be in New York, for a high level meeting on climate change that UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon is hosting. Flying being about the worst thing any of us can do to the planet, the dates Bush has chosen will probably deliver more emission savings than all the hot air announcements he has so far made on climate issues. Not flying to the US one extra time will save the emissions of several years of (average) car driving. It also means less jet lag, more time with friends, and - hopefully - more time drinking beer on the roof terrace.

Make no mistake, though – that Bush is holding this “Gang of the Big Emitters” meeting is no change of heart. Bush remains as opposed as ever to the globally binding (and deep!) emission cuts we urgently need. His September meeting is part of the theatre Bush is putting on in order to look busy on climate issues until he finally (!) leaves office next year. That he is holding the meeting at all does show that he feels under pressure - but sadly not that he is willing to act. To the contrary! This meeting, just like the APEC one his pal John Howard is putting on at the beginning of September is in fact a dangerous attempt to divert attention away from where the real action on climate change is and ought to be: the Kyoto Protocol. At the G8 summit in June Bush was forced to claim that his meeting is a contribution to the wider UN process that must lead to a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol, the only legally binding global treaty to cut greenhouse gas emissions. The Bush administration even had to repeat that claim when they announced the September date on Friday. The reality is, though, that they are still opposed to what the Kyoto Protocol is all about: internationally binding ceilings (called caps) on emissions. They say so quite openly and you can also see it in the language they use. They keep talking about Kyoto “expiring” in 2012, for example, suggesting that Kyoto is on the way out. This is rubbish. Kyoto’s first phase will end in 2012, no more. Kyoto will persist and the current commitments simply need to be replaced by new ones. If the planet is to be saved, this ‘second commitment period’ will have to oblige industrialized countries to cut their emissions by at least 30% by 2020. That’s what I and the rest of the Climate Action Network gang will be heading to the US in September to demand. Let's hope our flight to the US is worth it!

Donnerstag, 2. August 2007

Shock revelation: German loves beer (but make it organic)

To say that I love beer is admittedly pretty dull. I'm German, after all, so the fact that I don't eat sausages is surely more newsworthy than my devotion to our national drink. But, so be it. One of the truths in my life is that few things can give me more simple pleasure than a good, cold glass of beer at the end of the day. In retrospect, it all started at my very first ball (and I haven't been to many since). I returned all sweaty from the dance floor and found an unaccompanied beer on the table I was sitting at before. I took a sip - and was in instant heaven. When you are really sweaty and thirsty, there is nothing better than a Pilsner. Period.
Wherever I go, I try new and local beers as much as I can. So in Canmore, Alberta, I of course returned to the Grizzly Paw Pub and enjoyed their wonderful taster sets (see picture above). I particularly liked their seasonal light ale, though sadly I can't recall what they had put in it to make it special. Their Rutting Elk Red is also quite a good impression of a Scottish ale, somewhere between a 70 and an 80.
If I had unlimited space and a partner as tolerant of clutter as my friend and fellow beer lover Red Constantino - see his beer collection here - I would probably be lugging home beer bottles from around the globe all the time. That not being the case, I have restricted myself to collecting bottles that not only contain fine beers, but also seeds of the agricultural revolution. Organic beers are one indication of how organic has started to go mainstream in recent years. Drinking the stuff used to be the preserve of greenies like me who had to buy it in more or less obsucre organic shops (ten years ago, my quest for organic beers was akin to someone collecting rare books and visiting antique book dealers around the world). Now, shop assistants know what you are talking about when you ask and you can even buy them - "no problem"- in any run of the mill beer and wine store in, say, Alberta. I thus could happily add two new bottles to my collection last week:
Fishtale is a very fruity beer, that to someone like me is almost like a "desert beer"; I think it has too much fruityness to go well with many meals. But I liked it - though I am not entirely sure I support the idea of a "wild salmon" beer (I am vegetarian after all ...). The slogan "you should have tasted the one that got away" is kind of cute, though.
Paddywhack by the Nelson Brewing Company from BC, is an all the more hard-hitting and ale-like affair. It's got above 6% alcohol and a heavy - some would probably say hoppy - taste to it. It's again not a beer I would regularly have with a meal as it has a very strong taste of its own. But it is a perfect late night, finishing off the day after a nice hike or a swim in the lake kind of affair.

I will keep you posted on other gems I find. Please, if you ever visit me, bring a bottle! Organic beers is one of those few products I could become a marketing shark for. It's all we need in one: Pleasure and Revolution (and, yes, as Emma Goldman reminds us, it has to be in that order: "If I can't dance, I don't want to be part of your revolution!")

Mittwoch, 1. August 2007

Bumper stickers and how good is your Arabic?

I love bumper stickers, buttons, campaign and election posters - all the ephemeral signs of societal conversations, conflicts and follies. They so often sum up the mood of a moment so well. They so often express (dark) humour in a way no pamphlet or long, reasoned argument could. In short, they entertain me - to such an extent that I probably only ever finished my first marathon in 2001 because it was election time in Berlin. Making my way through town one km at a time, I was fascinated by the various posters - and by the way you could tell the socio-economic make-up of a neighbourhood simply by looking at them. Kreuzberg was plastered with posters of various lefty splinter parties, for example, many of which even I had not heard off. Yet in the leafy, boring outer west of the city you could easily get the impression that Germany only has two parties (Conservatives and Liberals) ....
Travelling, for me, is always also a chance to come across new bumper sticker gems. And so, exiting in a wonderfully relaxed, my-muscles-loved-that-hot-water kind of way from the Radium Hot Springs in British Columbia last week, this is what I found on the back of an American car:

Now please don't quibble and point out that this sticker reflects badly on Americans' ability to speak foreign languages. Please also do not point out that casulaty numbers in Iraq are nothing compared to Vietnam. Just enjoy - that's what I did.