The first week of talks is over at COP16 in Cancun, Mexico, and my brain is mushy. It’s not from margaritas — what’s spinning me around is the political web of the talks, the freakishly high stakes, and how long it takes to get to the conference from downtown Cancun. The logistics of the conference are both frustrating its progress and creating new dialogues, while the world waits with bated breath for real solutions that will stem the onset of catastrophic climate change. Read on for our exclusive report straight from Cancun!
On the first day of COP16, I spent two and a half hours in traffic en route to the official venue in a bus with two African party delegates. I wasn’t the only one behind schedule. Walking into the Moon Palace Hotel, it was easy to get excited by the plenary statements of India, Saudi Arabia, Mexico and others. They voiced their hope for commitment and compromise. Even the United States declared that “We are extremely eager to make progress here in Cancun.” But, of course, there’s more going on than the sound bites reveal. During the following press conference, applause only broke out once, for a journalist who complained about transportation: “Every hour we spend in traffic is an hour less we spend working, an hour less we spend on coverage.” Clap clap clap.
The response of COP President Patricia Espinosa Cantellano: “We are going to do our best.”
Traffic jam on the first day of talks
That very same journalist got on a shuttle with me a few days later. His name is Richard Ingham, he writes for the Agence France-Presse, and he’s been attending COPs for years. We got into a discussion of process, logistics and the conference itself. The sense of urgency is dismally palpable. “If you and I lived in the same village, and it was on fire, would we form a committee?” he asked.
In yet another shuttle, I spoke with a member of such a committee: a delegate from Egypt. He had just spent three hours debating a half-page document on capacity building. Did he think they’d need another three hours tomorrow? “No,” he said, waving his hand. “Six hours.” In his opinion, the talks were not amounting to much. But not just because of the bureaucratic process — He, too, was stuck in that Monday morning traffic jam: logistics were making talks “a failure before they even started.”
It’s true that the practicalities of COP16 are not sweetening the sour taste in everyone’s mouth. A slow and frustrating bureaucratic process is made worse by late shuttles, delayed events and incomplete information. Even the Climate Change Village, a series of public exhibitions and concerts with no diplomatic agenda, is having trouble sticking to its schedule. Attendants, UNFCCC employees, and shuttle coordinators seem regularly overwhelmed. Sometimes even the most basic information, such as when a bus is leaving, or where an event is happening, is difficult to come by. But the apologies are delivered kindly and sincerely. We’re doing the best we can.
Besides, can the buses really be blamed for Japan’s threatening of the Kyoto protocol, for instance? Or Canada earning 1st, 2nd and 3rd place in Fossil of the Day? Success in the talks seems dependent as much on recovering from COP15 as reaching finance agreements.
A few days later the distance from COP16 to central Cancun has not become magically shorter, but the traffic has greatly improved. A couple of bio-fueled buses have even entered the fleet. The Mexican government plans to offset the carbon impact of the conference, though I wonder if it wouldn’t require some kind of “new and additional” funding. And semi-magically, there was no Fossil of the Day awarded for Day 4 of the talks, because reportedly “everyone was being really nice.” No one wants to be the country or diplomat that destroyed the world. But the number of interests at stake is mind-boggling.
It’s slowly becoming clear that the UNFCCC is not just about climate change: it’s about uniting the entire freaking world on an incredible diplomatic scale — which is almost as daunting as the consequences of climate change. Before that happens, countries have to develop a certain level of trust. And after last year’s fight, that might not come quickly.
To Ingham, the most exciting aspect of the COPs is not what happens between delegates, but between citizens, activists, NGOs, artists and countries in places like the Cancunmesse. This “side event” venue feels less like a COP and more like a giant international Green Festival, with paintings, performances and installations amongst the NGO booths. Anne-Marie Melster of Artport echoes this sentiment: “Any creative part of society is maybe the most important part of society.”
Simon Anholt addressed as much in the parallel Climate Change Communication Forum, speaking of the “Power of the Six Billion”. “There’s so much more to this than climate change. In almost every area we find that we have shared challenges and shared problems, of which climate change is perhaps the most prominent,” he said. “We just haven’t figured out how to run ourselves like a species yet.”
It suggests that the real sustainable move is the creation of lasting relationships. Not just between countries, but communities and people. Maybe the thing that needs to happen is for us to let go of our existential and historical baggage and become a truly practical and global community, as concerned with our neighbors’ fishing stock as our own GDPs. And maybe the UNFCCC process is slow, but maybe we still need it, at least long enough to get a regulated commitment from developed nations, or to act as a platform for other, better global collaborations. We’re all stuck on the same dang bus. We can only do the best we can.