How the "Climate Train" came to be organised
Ben Matthews tells the story of how it all came about.
Watching thirty three people from many different countries and professions standing together on the helipad of a ship in the stormy inland sea of Japan rehearsing a song "Stop stop stop, stop now climate change, cut emissions everywhere, cut emissions now...", riding my bicycle late in the evening from a UN Convention through the little lanes of Kyoto back home to our crowded temple, paying for a banquet for fifty climate scientists in a Chinese institute, waiting for hours in the remote grasslands of the russian-chinese border arguing about whether our satellite telephone had a license, trying to work out who of thirty people had failed to return their pillowcase to the bossy provodnik while watching the snow whisk past outside, losing my voice directing our group around the beautiful labyrinth of the Moscow metro, and even six months later sorting out bizarre small items in the accounts such as "train for wet cyclists", "chocolates for bribes" (to get tickets urgently in Novosibirsk), or "electricity on train" (to run our computers), on many such occasions I wondered how I had come to be coordinating this remarkable project. Like most ideas, it began small and gradually grew much more ambitious.
Towards the end of the Climate Convention COP2 in Geneva (July 1996) the Japanese delegation announced that they would host the next meeting. I remember thinking immediately that if I went to Kyoto I would prefer to travel by train. I had known for a long time the problem of greenhouse gas emissions from air travel, -and had consequently discovered the many wonderful experiences of travelling far overland, including a journey on trains, boats and buses via Central Asia to China in 1993. Although that time I flew back from Beijing to begin my Ph.D. research here at UEA, this was the only flight I have made in the last nine years. In January 1997 I was then expected to give a talk at a conference on "CO2 in the Oceans" in Puerto Rico, but when I calculated the CO2 emissions from the trip I decided not to go -on the basis that scientists should practise what we preach. To say, on the one hand, that CO2 emissions are a great problem so the government must give us lots of money to do more research about them, and then to spend such money flying to friendly gatherings in the Caribbean and thus emitting much more CO2 in the process, seemed to me hypocritical.
With the support of the NGO "Scientists for Global Responsibility" I had also been raising awareness of the risks of "Climate Engineering" - i.e. global scale technical fixes for global warming such as fertilisation of the ocean algae to soak up CO2, or putting reflecting dust in the stratosphere. I thought Kyoto would be an appropriate occasion to raise a debate about this because such research on technical fixes is particularly encouraged by the Japanese government. But if I assert that there are no safe technical fixes to "repair the damage" of greenhouse gas emissions, then this is even more reason to insist that we must change our lifestyles instead -and so I had to minimise my emissions by going by train to Kyoto.
I assumed that there must be others who had the same idea, so I thought it would make sense for us to travel together, and also to help each other to overcome the practical difficulties with arranging visas and tickets that I already knew awaited us. However when in April 1997 I sent out many emails to climate and "green" email lists , I only hoped to find a few travelling companions. Although I was prepared to take a lead based on my previous experience of travelling in Russia and China and knowledge of those languages, I never intended to organise anything on the scale that the "Climate Train" became.
Immediately I received enthusiastic replies from Oras Tynkynnen of FoE Finland and Britta Coy, then working at ASEED Europe (Action for Solidarity and Equality in Environment and Development)in Amsterdam. Oras had had the same idea and he had also made the journey to China before. The idea had already been discussed at a recent ASEED meeting in Oslo and there Britta had volunteered to organise a group to travel on the train, although she hadn’t started to plan any details. ASEED is primarily an international youth-environment organisation and they successfully organised the massive "Greenhouse Gathering" at the first Conference of the Parties in Berlin in 1991. Many people remarked at that time, how these 600 people gathering outside the conference were much more effective at focusing attention on the real issues than the official delegates inside. So the train was to take such a gathering from Berlin (COP1) to Kyoto (COP3). The Japanese NGOs also encouraged this idea because they wanted to make a similar event but had little experience of planning such "actions". ASEED’s idea was thus much more ambitious than mine, and aimed primarily at environmental activists rather than scientists. However Britta and I agreed we would work together to organise it, and without that cooperation to keep us inspired I think we would have both given up when we encountered the many difficulties ahead.
Of course we realised that we would not find 600 people to go on the train to Kyoto, but we wanted to encourage a wide diversity of people to travel, whoever was dedicated enough to travel for 10 days each way across Siberia in winter to go to COP3. Since ASEED has always emphasised that their international events should be accessible to everybody, we hoped to raise money to help those who could not otherwise afford to participate, especially those from eastern Europe whose countries we would be passing through. But I did not know then that the price of Russian train tickets (in dollars) had risen by a factor of about 70 since I last made the journey in 1993 (when Moscow-Bishkek, 78 hours and 2/5 of the way from the Atlantic to the Pacific, cost only 4 dollars soft sleeper - such were those days of subsidies).
Settling the route and arranging meetings
Before we could write credible funding applications we had to find both a definite route and schedule, and also a core group of dedicated people who would commit themselves to make this journey. We worked on both of these tasks in parallel during May and June. I searched the web for information about trains and boats in Russia and China and found various helpful contacts this way, including Rush Zhou of CCITS (China Circulate International Travel Service) who later made all our travel arrangements from Beijing. All the information was assimilated on our web pages which I created on my own site at the University of East Anglia. This included a colorful map showing the various routes from the Atlantic to the Pacific which apparently inspired several people to join us. I also set up an email discussion list to enable everybody who wanted to join the journey to get to know each other and contribute to making the practical decisions.
We had assumed that the easiest route would be on the trans-Siberian railway and across the sea from Vladivostok to Niigata in Japan, so it was a setback to discover that this ferry only operates in summer. ASEED Japan then discovered a cargo ship (transporting secondhand cars!) which might be willing to take us on this route if we had at least 50 people, but we were concerned that this was not very reliable. I suggested that we travel instead via Beijing as I had found that there were regular ferries from both Shanghai and South Korea to Japan. I also hoped that we could turn this into an opportunity to meet Chinese people concerned about climate change and maybe even bring some with us. Although this meant more complications with visas and several more days journey altogether, Britta agreed that it would be really good to have a climate meeting in Beijing so we decided to try to find some contacts there.
Meanwhile Rush Zhou discovered that there was also a ferry service from Tianjin to Kobe which would be much more convenient than the route via Shanghai. The timing of the latter part of the journey was then fixed because there was only one ferry per week from Tianjin and only two trains per week from Moscow to Beijing. I had also considered a southern route across central Asia via Almaty (Kazakhstan) and Urumqi (Xinjiang, China). In 1994 the "Peace Train" from Europe to the UN Women’s Convention in Beijing went this way with about 250 people on board. However several travel agents told us that tickets from Moscow to Almaty were now very expensive and we had neither the time nor the numbers to organise our own special train.
A key advantage of travelling overland is that you can meet so many people on the way in places you would not otherwise visit, so we were looking for contacts to arrange meetings along our route in Siberia. At this point we were very fortunate that one of my emails reached Amy Taylor of ISAR Siberia in Novosibirsk (ISAR = Institute of Soviet American Relations). She offered to organise a big climate conference for us in Novosibirsk - just half way between western Europe and Japan - involving local scientists, environmental NGOs, and even the city government. This was a unique opportunity because such international events are rare in the middle of Siberia yet in Novosibirsk they have the biggest concentration of universities and institutes in Russia, and as we later discovered their forests are already suffering from climate change. When we included this conference in the plan, it became much more impressive. Meanwhile it was also very encouraging to have such friendly contacts in ASEED Japan who were planning a big reception for our climate train and also offered to find us cheap accommodation - a critical problem in Kyoto! With a daily discussion on the email list between people in Europe, Siberia and Japan the project began to seem more real which encouraged others to get involved.
I wrote an email in Russian introducing the idea of the Climate Train and sent it to many environmental organisations. This helped us to find several enthusiastic contacts in Moscow, ranging from climate professors in Moscow University to the radical environmental activist group "Rainbow Keepers", but it was not clear who would take responsibility for arranging a conference or how to bring these diverse individuals together. Eventually Ilya Popov from the Social Ecological Union (a large umbrella NGO coordinating various environmental campaigns) offered to arrange both a discussion with local NGOs and academics and also a press conference for us.
I also wrote an introductory letter about our "Climate Train" in Chinese and sent it by fax and email to many contacts in Beijing. I soon found several climate scientists in various institutes and universities who liked the idea of our project and warmly welcomed us to Beijing, but while our list of participants and our finances seemed so uncertain they were understandably cautious about offering to host a conference for such an unusual group. Later I negotiated with Professor Lin Erda a "short conference" hosted by the Agrometeorological Institute, and organised by his colleague Li Yue. Britta also met with the director of one of the very few environmental NGOs in China, "Friends of Nature" with whom we arranged a short meeting. We also investigated the possibility of making a link to the high profile ‘China Environmental Forum’ which was due to be held at the same time as our visit, but it turned out that this would not be appropriate.
Finding people to join us
To let people know about the journey, Britta publicised the idea via various environmental networks and newsletters in Europe, while I sent emails to climate science networks, to green groups in the UK, and to previous delegates at the Climate Convention using the UNFCCC "Who’s Who" book. Once the networking had begun, the gossip continued to spread by itself, and months later my original emails were still reaching new people.
However after a while I began to get concerned that although many "experts" on climate change had told me what a wonderful idea this journey was, few had committed themselves to joining us. Of course I never intended that this journey was only for experts, and I supported Britta’s idea that this project was partly about "Climate Training" -i.e. helping new people to enter this global discussion. For example I went to Manchester to try to persuade some of the activists in tunnels and treehouses defending the Bolin Valley from the expansion of the airport to come with us to tell their story in Kyoto! However, we critically needed more "experts" to lead the "climate training" and also we could not promise high-profile conferences in Novosibirsk and Beijing without at least a few participants from the train who could make serious technical presentations. In Siberia and China there is not yet the same informal culture of grassroots environmental NGOs as we have in western Europe, so if you want to organise a conference at all it has to be fairly scientific and formal.
Eventually we gathered a group with a sufficient diversity of experience to fulfill such roles and also to represent a wide range of countries in both eastern and western Europe, although it was difficult to find people from the Mediterranean region -this problem is often encountered by organisers of environmental events in Europe. However the list of participants kept changing even until the last few days before departure. Many of those who contributed actively to the discussion in the early days in spring, without whose enthusiasm we would probably have abandoned the whole project, later had to drop out because they discovered too many other commitments - the round trip takes six weeks and people found it difficult to get time away from work and other responsibilities. While this may be seen as an argument against the rigid pattern of modern work rather than against travelling overland, we couldn’t change the structure of society so quickly! Despite this problem our list of people who would like to join the journey continued to increase gradually to a maximum of about 60, but many of these dependent on our funding.
Keeping track of who still intended to come, and who had dropped out of the discussion because they were no longer interested was a difficult task, particularly for those people without email whom we had to find by fax or phone. Helping me in my office at UEA, Michelle Valentine compiled a database of potential participants, their preferences and experience. We needed a lot of information particularly to issue visa invitations- passport numbers, dates of birth, exact dates of return journeys through Russia for those not with the main group, etc. etc. In September Michelle went to a language course in Petersburg (by train of course), hoping to continue to Moscow to stay with a friend from "Rainbow Keepers" and sort out our events in Moscow, tickets and visas etc.. In the end this did not work out and she returned to Norwich, but while she was away it was impossible for me alone to keep track of everything and the database was handed over to Britta, after some technical difficulties.
It was now only four months before departure, and while this was still too early for many people to tell us whether they could definitely commit themselves to the journey, it was already getting late for funding applications. As with most projects we wrote countless application letters that never received any response. All the successful applications were due to establishing personal contact and following this with many telephone calls. The first major grant to be approved was from the UK government fund Charity Know How specifically for the events in Novosibirsk and the Siberian participants -this was approved in September giving Amy and the Siberians enough time to organise a really good conference.
Our largest grant, from the European Commission (DGXII Global Environment) was secured partly due to my meeting with the head of the unit (Jürgen Henningsen) at the meeting of the Subsidiary Bodies to the Convention in Bonn in July, where a poster announcing the "Climate Train" was also prominently displayed for publicity. However this meeting was followed by an EU holiday throughout August, and negotiation with the officials over the details of the application during all of September. Part of the problem was that the EU would only fund a maximum of 30% of the project so we had to show that we had matching funding. Other grants came in gradually, but it seemed the accountants could not understand that the number of people we would take depended on how much money we could raise. After this was settled, it still had to be signed by people in six different departments of the Commission and we only received the key confirmation from the Finance directorate just two weeks before our departure (nevertheless, this process was apparently remarkably fast for an EU grant!).
Although we had a core group of people from western Europe who were planning to cover their own costs, many others would not have been able to travel without part or full subsidy, and so we could not afford to take the risk of purchasing train and boat tickets for them until we had confirmation of funding. However as the departure date was looming closer and closer, we had to form a priority list of these potential participants, such that as soon as we received confirmation of a grant, we would send a fax, phone or email to tell the next few people down the list that we had the money and ask them to make visa applications immediately, and also to update the list of tickets needed for our travel agents. This priority list was agreed by myself and Britta, and was aimed at maximising both diversity and experience within the group. Most of "high priority" people were from eastern Europe, where even professionals had very low incomes. Here is an email we received from a Russian professor Alexander Varshavsky.
Thank you very much for the invitation, I would like, surely, to be included in the list of participants of this very interesting and useful journey. The only problem for me is financing because the monthly salary of professor in Russia is equal to the cost of the train ticket (single) from Moscow to Vladivostok.
Although we were eventually able to offer him funding, by that time he was not able to join us due to work commitments.
At this critical stage we were especially grateful to Edward Goldsmith, the Polden Puckham foundation, the Scurrah Wainwright Trust and The Reuter Foundation for approving grants within a few days of first contact, understanding that we had no time to lose. Several of our funders also told me that normally they would immediately reject any application for travel expenses to a conference, because they too were aware that the jetsetting lifestyle is unsustainable, but they recognised immediately that our journey was something different, that we were trying to raise public awareness of exactly this problem.
[Note that a full list of the grants funding of the climate train can be found in the "budget and funding" chapter of this report.]
As well as applying for grants, we also tried many other innovative ideas for funding. One obvious source of sponsorship was the railway companies themselves, whom we hoped might give us a special deal or free tickets as our Climate Train" provided excellent publicity for them. I wrote letters to the International Union of Railways headquarters in Paris but there was never any response, and to various railway companies, one of which, the "Trans-Siberian-Express company" sounded especially promising. However after several letters, a fax and an email being sent they eventually replied saying they only dealt with container wagons so they couldn’t help us, unless we wished to be packed like sardines! Actually, even freight companies should have had an interest in our project as we were campaigning in the climate convention for a tax on international aircraft and shipping fuel, which would have boosted the competitiveness of long-distance rail freight. But in the end only Dushka Peric managed to persuade Croatian railways to give her a free ticket from Zagreb to Moscow.
We also wrote to many telecommunication companies on the basis that they should also have an commercial interest in emphasising greenhouse gas emissions from aircraft, encouraging people to use teleconferencing instead. We wrote to water companies in the UK which were suffering from a drought at the time and might be concerned about climate change, and of course we wrote to companies selling renewable energy and other green technology, although most of them are small. We offered to display publicity material for companies at our stall in Kyoto, preferably a on computer screen so we wouldn’t have to carry reams of paper. However none of this brought us any money.
We were more successful with donations from private individuals, and together these made a substantial contribution to our funding (details in budget chapter). Donors included the comedian Ben Elton, who was approached by Michelle Valentine:
'I've always been a great fan of his, and know how much he cares about climate change', she said. 'It was the logical thing to do'.
Even though I had anticipated long in advance the difficulties of obtaining Russian visas, we found no obvious solution to make our project fit the narrow pigeonholes of the bureaucrats in the ministry of foreign affairs. Eventually we decided to ask a somewhat reluctant UK travel agent to issue tourist visa invitations for us, on the basis that they would also arrange the Russian railway tickets and accommodation in Moscow. This plan later went badly wrong, and the problems caused by cumbersome and pointless visa regulations were the greatest obstacles to the success of the "Climate Train". Therefore these sagas are given a special chapter later in this report as part of the evaluation, under the heading "bureaucratic barriers to sustainable travel".
Unlike the Russian visas, we had not anticipated the difficulty of obtaining Japanese visas for the Russian and Chinese participants. For this reason, and because we would be departing from China ten days later than from eastern Europe, we left the eight potential Chinese participants late on the "priority list" and did not confirm that we had money to fund them until we had heard definite news about the EU grant. Unfortunately, only three of the eight managed to get visas in time and even these were late. Similarly we hoped that the three Russian ladies from the Social Ecological Union would be able to get visas quickly, but they also had to give up (more detail in "bureaucratic barriers"). If it seems strange that funding for the people from Moscow was confirmed much later than for those from Novosibirsk, this is because Charity Know How preferred to fund a group from just one location who might continue to work together after the event.
Why "Scientists for Global Responsibility" became the key organisation behind the Climate Train
When I first raised the idea of a ‘Climate Train’ at an SGR meeting in May, the National Coordinating Committee endorsed the project and agreed to help with funding applications and publicity, but at that time we presented it as joint project between SGR and ASEED Europe, supported by various other organisations. However after Britta Coy moved to Munich to work for "Greencity", there was nobody remaining in the ASEED office in Amsterdam who could consistently handle funding applications and manage accounts for our project, although Britta and I continued to organise it jointly by email as before. SGR, although a small organisation, had a well established structure and a stable core of committed people who could provide this backup. Therefore all of the successful funding applications for the whole "Climate Train" project (rather than for individuals) were made through SGR (or our associated Martin Ryle Trust), with help from many members but particularly SGR chair Phil Webber.
Receiving grants also entails responsibility for ensuring that the money is well spent, and so inevitably SGR then had to make the key financial decisions for the whole project. We also set up a special bank account for the project and Kate Maloney, SGR’s Administrator, became responsible for handling all transactions in and out of this account - being able to rely on this support in London was of course essential - for example while we were on the train in a blizzard in Siberia money from our funders was still gradually arriving in the office and had to be transferred to pay for the tickets from Beijing. After the event Kate spent many weeks meticulously checking the accounts and trying to collect and understand the various notes and receipts in so many languages!
SGR also became responsible for arranging official accreditation to the Climate Convention for most of the Climate Train delegates. Azza Taalab, the NGO Liaison officer of the UNFCCC Secretariat supported the principles behind our project, and she preferred to allow all participants of the Climate Train to enter the convention using the SGR "label" if their own organisation was not already accredited, rather than her having to correspond with everybody individually. However this of course meant extra work for us, particularly because evidence of the accreditation was required as supporting documentation for obtaining Japanese visas -which were necessary for all of our group living outside the European Community. Therefore we had to fax these documents from the UNFCCC together with supporting invitations from SGR and ASEED Japan to all these participants, which combined with the poor reliability of telecommunications in Eastern Europe took a lot of effort.
The third critical role played by SGR was Dani Kaye’s work as our press officer. First she collected an extensive database of media contacts and faxed press releases to give them advance notice of our project. She also established our connections with Channel 4 TV news who joined our journey between Novosibirsk and Beijing. Then on the journey, whenever we could establish communications people from the Climate Train sent reports by email or fax back to Dani - which she converted to press releases to distribute to all the media contacts. For more details see the chapter on "media coverage of the Climate Train".
The "Climate Train" web page was also moved to the SGR site so that the SGR web team could add news reports and photographs as soon as we emailed them to London.
However during the last hectic months before departure the core organisation remained in my office in the School of Environmental Sciences, University of East Anglia. I particularly have to thank my supervisor Peter Liss for allowing me to devote so much time to this project which was clearly not part of my research contract. Nevertheless, right until the last few days before we left, I continued to investigate the flux rate of CO2 into and out of my tank of seawater and phytoplankton in the laboratory. Such kinetic experiments are intrinsically slow -you have to wait for the algae to grow and the gases to equilibrate, so I would make measurements in the morning and evening and work on the "Climate Train" during the day.
The last couple of weeks before departure were the most crazy of all. Although we had funding confirmed most of it wasn’t in the bank yet and several individuals, including myself, had to make large loans to the project bank account to purchase tickets. We also had to get out thousands of dollars of travellers cheques and cash to use along the route, and some to reimburse Zuzanna Iskierka who had kindly undertaken to purchase all the tickets from Warsaw to Moscow. Zuzanna also offered to arrange a meeting with Polish NGOs in Warsaw, and Arno Paulus from Solarpolis offered to arrange a one-day meeting in Berlin, to mark the historic link between COP1 and COP3. We all liked these proposals and this was convenient since we could take the night train between Berlin and Warsaw. So Michelle then sorted out the ticket reservations as far as Warsaw.
Meanwhile we still had nobody to film the journey, because a Canadian who earlier offered to do this had to take another job. Just in the last week we found Richard Schofield, a freelance environmental filmmaker, but he had no video camera of his own, so Kate had to rush out to buy one in London which we hoped to sell again after the project was complete.
Establishing means of communication while we were on the move was another complicated issue. We had between us several portable computers with email and fax capability, but we would have no phone line or local internet server and also we were uncertain about the electric power supply on the train (more on this later!). Richard Scrase, who also joined the project just a week before we left, managed in that time not only to arrange the loan of a free Psion handheld computer, but also of a satellite telephone with free telephone calls. To avoid licensing problems we arranged with the international company Inmarsat to pick it up in Moscow, and it turned out to be immensely useful.
We also spent some time trying to arrange a live video-link between the Novosibirsk conference and the SGR Annual General Meeting in London, which was deliberately arranged to coincide with our arrival in Novosibirsk. The video-link was intended to help publicise the Climate Train to the London media, and one main focus of the AGM was a climate policy workshop. In the event the video-link was not possible because the conference in Novosibirsk was not in Akademgorodok as originally planned, but in the city itself where a fast internet connection was not available. However we did manage an audio link between the two conferences via our satellite telephone.
Meanwhile urgent faxes about visas continued until the last day, Michelle and our university receptionist handling most of this work. We also had to fax the Mayor of Novosibirsk to request his support for our conference! We tried to prepare "briefing packs" for all participants and publicity leaflets but there simply wasn’t enough time to finish them. Finally, we had to purchase some basic climate science books, stationery, maps, and banner materials to use in the workshops and for publicity, and of course some warm hats and gloves for Siberia!
Note about the email discussion list
A couple of weeks before departure, most of the UK participants met for the first time in London to coordinate these final preparations. Apart from that before the journey itself hardly any of the participants of the Climate Train had ever met each other, including myself and Britta. Nearly all contact between us had been by email, or for a few people by phone or fax. The automatic email discussion list, which included over a hundred people, enabled potential participants, organisers and observers from all over Europe to contribute ideas, request information and announce news, without being dependent on information forwarded or edited by a central coordinating office. This allowed most decisions to be made by consensus, although a lack of response to a suggestion was more often a problem than disagreement, and it was very hard for us to be certain whether everybody had made the effort to check for critical pieces of information from among the general discussion, as there were often several emails per day to the list not all of which were particularly serious. Moreover people’s email addresses change frequently and constantly updating the list became immensely frustrating, but if this was not done I personally received error messages for every email that was not delivered -often there were 40 such messages in one day! These messages clogged the system and delayed real list messages by a few days, causing some unfortunate misunderstandings until we identified the problem. It would have made sense for Britta to update the list from Munich as she had the database, but when we tried it I only received alarming messages "WARNING! HACKER ATTACK!" from UEA computer system, as if she was about to destroy civilisation!
The following spring I set the computer to count all the old emails in my various "Climate Train" folders. Before mid October I had received 1734 different messages of sufficient interest to be worth keeping. A similar number were fairly trivial and had been deleted, as well as the list error messages mentioned above.
These messages included 518 sent to our discussion list (whatever the topic), and also another...
There were also about 200 concerning climate in general (not related to the Climate Train)
After mid October I had been too busy to sort the messages, but in the three weeks before our departure on November 7th there were another 379. I only have data of the number of messages I myself sent for October and the frantic first week of November before departure, these were 677 and 162 respectively. I continued to receive many emails while we were travelling but many of these I had to ignore as we could only view them by an occasional slow telnet connection. Phil Webber in London recalls up to a fifty messages a day about the Climate Train during the COP itself. The discussion list continued after the journey and I received several hundred more messages while I was in Qingdao, China and since returning to Norwich, mostly concerning future projects and policy, the accounts and this report.
From these figures it is obvious why myself, Michelle and Britta all longed for a break away from computers, but for months there was no time to spare, with up to 50 urgent email requests to deal with every day. The most frustrating messages were those which said "please put me back on the discussion list and tell me what’s been happening as I have just returned from a nice relaxing holiday!".
However I don’t think there was any other way we could have coordinated such a complicated project between so many different countries while keeping within a tight budget. So it was wonderful at last to meet all the real people and put faces to the names read so often at the end of the impersonal emails. The next chapter tells who these people were.