CLIMATE CHANGE | The Conference Begins: COP16, day 1

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The 10-mile shuttle bus ride from the hotel zone to Cancunmesse, the gateway venue for COP16, took two hours and 25 minutes Monday morning. We left around 8:30am and wound our slow way through the stop-and-go rush hour traffic punctuated by police checkpoints until finally arriving around 11. We were security screened after getting off the buses and from then on spent the day inside the access-controlled “bubble” of the conference. Compared to the ‘enhanced pat down’ that I received at the MSP airport a few days ago, this screening was a walk in the park, although most delegates were frustrated by the rush-hour shuttle ride.

Our friends from Sunday night, the Kiwis, had it worse: some members of the New Zealand youth delegation spent four hours on the shuttle, hitting thicker traffic since they left slightly after we did. The logistics of coordinating a conference of this magnitude are immense and I wouldn’t want to be in charge.

At Cancunmesse, which is essentially a series of convention center warehouse buildings where the conference’s many side events are held, we chatted for a while with a gentleman in the USA’s booth. Many countries have exhibit areas in one of the halls, and the USA center could more accurately be described as a small house — it comprises several rooms, including a “living room” with free coffee and a space for presentations or seminars. It also has an impressively technological array of flat-panels showing scientific data overlaid onto virtual globes. This is what we chatted about, although we did more listening than talking as the booth staff member, a meteorologist by training, gleefully took us through the seemingly endless series of sea-level projections and warming maps and cloud-cover diagrams. He controlled his presentation on a TouchTable, an interactive screen similar to those used by some news networks. He could pinch, twirl, and draw on the virtual globe in front of him, much like seeing someone operate a four-foot iPhone.

It struck me as a distraction to spend such resources on displaying relatively widely-available science (which most conference participants are already familiar with) and omitting any discussion of potential political actions to take in the face of this science, but I suppose it’s the best the U.S. has to bring to the international table at the moment. I’m sure it’s a tough position to be in: when your country lacks the political will to take action, what else can you talk about? Wow ’em with TouchTables.

I would hear more on the subject of US (non) involvement later in the day. From Cancunmesse, I took another shuttle bus (only a 20-minute ride; still inside the secured bubble) with a few other U of M delegates to the Moon Palace, the colossal hotel/convention center where the real negotiations will take place over the week. After getting oriented and buying some sandwiches (which were, by everyone’s judgment, awful — it’s interesting that delegates can’t buy Mexican food at the official food stands), I went to the opening plenary. Each of the major negotiating groups at COP16 got a chance to address the assembled audience. Venezuela gave perhaps the strongest rebuke in the opening plenary, stating that an international agreement must not be delayed further “by ONE country that refuses to ratify.” The Venezuelan delegate stressed that she still wished this agreement to come about through consensus — “We will never see an achievement behind the scenes.” Grenada, speaking on behalf of the Alliance of Small Island States, expressed hope that Cancun will be remembered as the place “where the most vulnerable among us will not be condemned to the pages of history.”

At a reception that we attended later that evening, one of my fellow U of M undergraduates, Kendra, struck up a conversation with Margaret Mukahanana-Sangarwe, the Zimbabwean chair of the Ad-Hoc Working Group on Long-Term Cooperative Action. Ms. Mukahanana-Sangarwe expressed again that U.S. involvement was critical to international cooperation on reducing emissions. It will be interesting over these next few days to see what steps, if any, the U,S. will take to signal a commitment to the international community and the U.N. consensus process. My expectations aren’t high, but low expectations define the storyline of COP16 so far and there may be surprises. Thanks for reading — I’ll be back with another blog tomorrow.

State Senator Ellen Anderson, Representative Kate Knuth and a delegation of University of Minnesota students are attending the COP 16 conference in Cancun, and students will share the experience with TC Daily Planet readers through blog post from the conference.