Imagine you’re a citizen who cares a whole lot about stopping climate change. When it became clear that a hugely important climate conference would take place in Copenhagen in December 2009, you started planning.

You wanted to be there to raise your voice, sit in on conference events, have your say, make a difference, do your part. You believed that if people like you didn’t speak up for poor countries getting left out of negotiations, no one would. So you took the time off work right before the busy holiday season, went through all the red tape of getting official conference accreditation, bought a plane ticket – maybe raised funds for it through a church group or other network. You got yourself to Europe, only to find that something, indeed, was rotten in the state of Denmark. The officers at Copenhagen’s Bella Center shut the door in your face.

Last week wasn’t the best week to be a concerned citizen abroad at a UN conference. A total of about 45,000 delegates from governments and NGOs were accredited to enter COP15, and apparently, they all showed up. Great – we need every voice we can get, right? Just one problem – the Bella Conference Center holds only 15,000 bodies.

Sorry, not enough space, said UN officials to the poster-pumping masses, some in tears. Well, maybe. Becca Connors of civil society group Friends of the Earth tells a different tale:  “It looks like our efforts to stand up for justice have ruffled some feathers of UN officials and leaders from rich countries -- who'd rather be able to spin their weak commitments as success, without civil society voices there in the negotiating rooms to hold them accountable,” she wrote in an angry mass email, just after all 100 of her organization’s citizen delegates were turned away this past Wednesday.

Many NGOs like Friends of the Earth see themselves as critical allies to poor countries which are under-resourced and get minimal exposure at such international conferences. “Friends of the Earth and other civil society groups play a key role at the conference in advocating for climate justice and supporting under-resourced negotiators from poor countries -- who are literally fighting for their survival as they push for strong climate actions,” Connors wrote. 

Eventually, 12 of Friends of the Earth’s 100 were allowed in, which is better than nothing, but it’s hard not to wonder what the other 88 did for the remaining three days of the conference. Wander the freezing streets of Copenhagen? Pump their posters at other locked-out civil society delegates outside the gates? Only 54 of the 3,000 Climate Action Network citizens in Copenhagen were allowed into the conference on Friday, so at least Friends of the Earth had plenty of friends to hang out with outside.

The New York Times’ Elisabeth Rosenthal said the sudden absence of civil society groups in the conference center was conspicuous, and sobering:

The most obvious effect of the diminished ranks of nongovernmental groups was a far more serious tone. The inspirational booths, buttons and free food largely disappeared. Booths they had staffed were hastily abandoned. Colorful posters were replaced with simple photocopied sheets reading, “How can you decide about us, without us?”