Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Denmark NOT Green?

As I mentioned in my previous post, my journalism class here met with Ida Auken of the Socialist People's Party at the Danish parliament, the Folketing, last week. She told us that she is a major advocate of making Copenhagen and Denmark more "green" and said that where the country was right now was shameful.


Denmark, so I thought, was generally considered a fairly "green" country - between dedicated bike lanes, gasoline taxes, and getting 20% of its electricity from wind power, I thought that Denmark was doing pretty well. I, like Ida Auken did for us that day, had read Thomas Friedman's August 9th column about Denmark's great focus on renewable energy:

Unlike America, Denmark, which was so badly hammered by the 1973 Arab oil embargo that it banned all Sunday driving for a while, responded to that crisis in such a sustained, focused and systematic way that today it is energy independent. (And it didn’t happen by Danish politicians making their people stupid by telling them the solution was simply more offshore drilling.)

What was the trick? To be sure, Denmark is much smaller than us and was lucky to discover some oil in the North Sea. But despite that, Danes imposed on themselves a set of gasoline taxes, CO2 taxes and building-and-appliance efficiency standards that allowed them to grow their economy — while barely growing their energy consumption — and gave birth to a Danish clean-power industry that is one of the most competitive in the world today. Denmark today gets nearly 20 percent of its electricity from wind. America? About 1 percent. ...

There is little whining here about Denmark having $10-a-gallon gasoline because of high energy taxes. The shaping of the market with high energy standards and taxes on fossil fuels by the Danish government has actually had “a positive impact on job creation,” added Hedegaard. “For example, the wind industry — it was nothing in the 1970s. Today, one-third of all terrestrial wind turbines in the world come from Denmark.”

So you can understand I was shocked when she finished reading Friedman's column only to say that it was a completely untrue account of the situation here. "But that's what I've seen," I thought. Everyday I ride my bike to the train station and then get in the packed train with thousands of other commuters, many who then continue to bike once in the city, and we pass a multitude of wind turbines on the way.

Maybe it was just this politician, I said to myself. She had, in fact, told us a few minutes earlier that as a political stunt to encourage a congestion tax to drive into Copenhagen she raced her friend from the Liberal Party into the city - Auken on her bike and her friend in her car - during rush hour (Auken won). So maybe she just was "overly" environmentalist or something? Denmark is REALLY GREEN... right?

But then she began to tell us how Denmark, which HAD been an environmentalist country, had been falling off in recent years do to inactivity and changing perceptions in the government. Though I haven't fact-checked her statements myself, the fact that she shot down Denmark's "green" status was still alarming.

Part of it is just that Auken believes Denmark has greater potential - she wants Copenhagen, for instance, to be carbon-neutral by 2030 by having 60% fewer emissions and purchasing 40% worth of credits elsewhere - but in recent years, she said, the government has took down more wind turbines then it has put up, fewer people are biking, and fewer people are taking public transportation, which she said had its funding cut recently.

"It shouldn't be a moral choice not to drive, but a practical choice," she said. While she may have won her bike race into the city, she said that public transportation is nowhere near to the fastest, most convenient, or cheapest commuting option (my commute does cost around $5 each way). She said she's been trying to put the government in charge "in a wheelbarrow" and push them along towards making Denmark greener, but it has been challenging. The Climate Minister, in Auken's eyes, says lots of great things, but actually does nothing. The Prime Minister even praised President Bush on a recent visit for being such a "green" person. Wow.

I have yet to truly see it though. This past weekend on my class trip to Odense on the island of Funen (will post later - we visited a really cool TV station, TV2, the leading competitor to the public station here) we drove past hundreds of turbines, all creating enormous amounts of energy. My commute takes 20+ minutes on the train, and the trains come every 10 minutes. I see hundreds of people biking all the time.

Maybe the government is doing a good job of putting on a face of environmentalism, but if Denmark - which IS still considerably environmentalist - isn't doing that well, what does it say about us?

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

"Denmark is like a village"

Well here I am in Denmark, a small but lovely country of only 5.4 million people (a bit smaller than the population of Maryland), and today my News Media in Transition class visited the Danish Parliament, called the Folketing.

And with so few people, so I learned, politics, especially the relationship between politicians and the media, is an entirely different game.

While walking onto Christiansborg, the island that the Folketing sits on (it once contained the royal palace and thus needed to be surrounded by a moat), a fairly large protest was taking place. In addition to the normal protest of the Iraq War, which someone has been doing 24/7 since the US invaded, around 100 people were holding a demonstration protesting, we found out, the closing of local hospitals. Apparently the Danish government wants to build/use larger hospitals that could be more efficient in helping people (by the way - all Danes (and visitors!) have free healthcare here) but people were worried that they might not be able to get help as quickly (in an emergency) if their local hospital was closed. Of course, the fact that they were protesting was not surprising, but while we were walking up, the Minister of Health was waving to the crowd after he had just finished an impromptu address. He did not have to speak to the protesters, our professor told us, but she said, "Denmark is like a village," and explained that there was no reason not to at least address and act kindly to the protesters, even if he disagrees. Why not treat everyone in your small country with respect?

Once inside, our class first met with Claus Kaa, a political reporter for Danish Radio.

Claus talked about the challenges of covering the 7+ parties in the Folketing, especially how hard it is to move beyond simple coverage such as how parties will align. Since nothing can really get done without a majority, the various parties form alliances; the power has been held since around 2001 by the right-wing alliance of the Danish People's Party (an anti-immigrant group), the Liberals and the Conservative People's Party (don't ask the difference... all we heard our speakers say is that supposedly all Danish political parties could fit inside the Democratic Party in the US... maybe it is something about that Welfare State they have...). Sure Claus might only have the 179 members of the Folketing to cover, unlike a Congressional reporter potentially covering 435 representatives and 100 senators, but it still seems pretty difficult. Especially because whenever the Prime Minister wants new elections (a chance to get a better majority), they will occur in THREE WEEKS, needing extremely strong coverage from the journalists and a great deal of energy from any candidates. Unlike a 19+ month presidential election, Danish politicians have less than three weeks to convince their constituencies to vote for them. Maybe it is a little easier since around 89% of the electorate vote. Although that makes sense when you trust the government (which most people I have spoken with do) with 50% or more of your income in taxes.

Claus told us that the media and the politicians need each other, "but it is wrong if we become friends." The media often needs stories to publish, especially in "cucumber time" - the summer months when the Folketing is not in session - and the politicians need the media to get information out.

Ida Auken, a member of the Folketing for the Socialist People's Party, joined us later and said that, especially in a three-week election, getting in touch with the media is crucial (as it is in America). But her election strategy and experiences she described greatly interested me.

Ida needed to tell the city of Copenhagen last October who she was and why they should elect her, all in a short period of time. Ida used her youthful insight - she's 30 (!?!) - to attract voters during the campaign. By starting a Facebook page that she actually still updates herself, maintaining a fairly polished blog and website ( if you want to check it out... not that I can understand any of it other than the design and pictures), texting supporters and making short YouTube videos, and probably the fact that her mother is a former member of the Folketing and now is a member of the EU Parliament, Ida was elected. In the Folketing, she's been a major advocate for making Copenhagen even greener (more on that in a later post... apparently a country with 20% of its power coming from wind energy and with dedicated bike lanes is not doing enough?).

This past summer, during "cucumber time," a journalist from one of the major Danish newspapers asked Ida to interview her about an article he was writing (because no news was happening) about the "new generation" of leaders in the Folketing. Because (remember, 5.4 million people in the whole country) the journalist and Ida knew each other - he was an ex-boyfriend's friend, they met at Roskilde Festival (this year's line-up included Radiohead, Neil Young, Band of Horses, The Streets, Battles, Jay-Z and many more) to do the interview. Here's where my knowledge of journalist/politician relationships started to fall apart. Apparently the conversation was really casual (maybe something having to do with it taking place at a giant music festival) and she said a few things as jokes and/or out of context when talking about the state of her party. But, so our professor explained, because of the village-like relationships, she was able to talk with the journalist and go over all the quotes he was thinking of using, and even asked him (and he agreed) to not publish ones that looked at her party in a critical light. Of course his editor ended up publishing one of her quotes as a headline and many other papers picked up on the "controversy," but that isn't the main point of the story. The fact that she had the opportunity to choose what the journalist would and wouldn't publish was shocking to me.

Maybe this kind of thing happens all the time, but it was a very enlightening experience - I'm sure one of many that I'll have while learning about the differences in journalism and politics at home and abroad.

Pictures from the trip below:

Claus in front of the original Danish constitution, from 1849

The main chamber, as seen from the royal seats. The press boxes (back of the picture) have better views...

Outside the Folketing... unfortunately the main tower is being fixed or something.