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Copenhagen: Californians make a splash

December 15, 2009 |  2:53 am

Copenhagen_Cyclists Jake MacKenzie, a city councilman from Rohnert Park, Calif., is in Copenhagen this week to chat with a Scottish climate official about a mutual interest in making energy from waves — and to tell the world that Sonoma County is a leader in controlling its greenhouse-gas emissions.

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

No final treaty is likely to emerge from the frenzied negotiations among 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 none of that has put a damper on the enthusiasm of hundreds, if not thousands, of Californians -- Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger governor, Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, 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 gab, schmooze, show off 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 the state’s first-in-the-nation economy-wide climate legislation, its first-in-the-world low-carbon fuel standard, and its highest-in-the nation renewable-energy requirements.

In California, said Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who arrived Monday, “we've proven that a sub-national government has the power to drive change across the nation and the world.”

And he sought a bit of the spotlight by announcing a new “coalition to fast track the results of the Copenhagen climate conference," joining with other regional officials from 20 nations including Algeria, Canada, France and Nigeria.

None of the Californians, however, are involved in the actual negotiations: Those 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 California-based Center for Climate Action, a nonprofit group.

But that’s not the point. 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 -- and a truly wonky enterprise.

True, there was a bit of a cloud over the festivities due to a  breakdown of credentialing computers Monday that left thousands of would-be participants shivering in the cold for as long as seven hours outside the Bella Center, the main venue.

Mike Chrisman, secretary for natural resources and one of three Schwarzenegger Cabinet officials in town, arrived at the center promptly at 9 Monday morning but soon left discouraged. As of early this morning, he still didn’t have a credential to get into the conference.

Nonetheless, Chrisman had a busy day, meeting about forests and biofuels with U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and chatting about sea level rise on an oceans panel offsite.

Meanwhile Linda Adams, secretary for the Environment, was signing an agreement with the Danish Environment minister to collaborate on green chemistry. And, as an aside, remarking on the “simplicity” of California’s climate law, AB 32 (less than 20 pages) compared to pending federal bills (1,400 pages).

With Patagonia, Hewlett Packard andPacific Gas & Electric, California businesses were out in force. 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.

L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa arrived Monday night with a retinue of seven, including DWP Commissioner Thomas Sayles and Geraldine Knatz, executive director of the Port of Los Angeles.

His schedule included a reception for mayors with Crown Prince Frederik of Denmark, a spot on a panel on public-private partnerships with the flamboyant entrepreneur and Virgin Airlines founder Richard Branson and a private get-together with officials from Maersk Line shipping, a major player in California’s port politics.

Among those stranded without credentials Monday was Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, 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 "since fellow officials are holding events in the center."

Nonetheless, she was off to dinner with U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Gov. Schwarzenegger and other officials at the U.S. Embassy, having purchased a furry Danish-made hat. “I look like a Wookie, but my head and ears are warm,” she wrote.

-- Margot Roosevelt

Photo: UC Davis professor and Air Resources Board member Dan Sperling sets out on a bike ride through Copenhagen with colleague Anthony Eggert. Credit: BreAnda Northcutt / CalEPA