CLIMATE CHANGE | There’s no place like home? COP16, day 3


While waiting for a side event to start on Wednesday, I sat down next to Dr. Irma Allen, delegate and negotiator from Swaziland. A native Texan, Dr. Allen has headed Swaziland’s Environmental Authority (their equivalent of the EPA) for many years. We talked about development.

“When I first went to Swaziland years ago,” she said, “there were 2km of paved roads in the entire country. I’d like to be able to educate our planners and architects on sustainable development right now, so we don’t have to go through the development process twice.” We talked about the possibility of an educational collaboration with the University of Minnesota. “In Arizona,” said Dr. Allen, “they’re moving to building with adobe. Well, we’re using adobe now, but people don’t want to — they want the new materials.” The conversation left me thinking: is it practical for countries to “skip” the stage of conventional / carbon-intensive development, or is this just dreaming?

The shuttles from our hotel to Cancunmesse have improved since Monday, when our delegation’s morning sojourn took two hours and 25 minutes. Now the trips are usually under 45 minutes. The Mexican coordinators rerouted miles of traffic and committed to running shuttles 24 hours a day to give attendees more flexibility. Also, the President of Mexico and his motorcade contributed to the traffic slowdown on Monday. The overall logistics here give an impression of well-run efficiency.

They also give an impression of overstaffing, at least by United States standards. There are so many workers whose primary jobs appear to be holding doors open, or standing in place for hours saying “Hola” to delegates arriving on shuttle buses, or standing in the median in the center of the road. (The half-mile or so of road leading up to each conference venue has guards in the median and on both sides, often in little bunches every 30 feet or so, seemingly without anything to do but stand and watch the traffic.) When delegates line up to board buses, there are signs on poles at the bus departure points with the shuttle route number (there are at least nine different shuttle routes), but there are also one or two workers who stand at the head of the line to organize people, and there’s one person whose primary job seems to be to hand-hold another sign with the same route number that’s on the pole. Mexico has poured money and resources into this conference, and it shows.

The question is, what will come of it? Japan made waves on Tuesday by announcing that it will not support efforts to extend the Kyoto Protocol past 2012, but otherwise there have been few revelations. The things that are happening are happening behind the scenes, with more concrete proposals set to be made public over the coming week when higher-level government officials arrive. Jonathan Pershing, one of the U.S’s top negotiators and a University of Minnesota doctoral graduate, said “We keep getting into smaller and smaller meetings.” In the same briefing, which he gave for NGOs, he explained that his possibilities are limited by the current U.S. political climate, especially after the elections a month ago. “It’s a question not of what would your ideal outcome be, but what can we bring home,” he explained.

It was intriguing for me to hear him talk. I believe he does want a stronger agreement than he knows his own country can deliver on. Although the U.S. has a well-deserved reputation for halting international climate progress, I can understand how Obama (who, while not perfect, has consistently spoken in favor of strong action on climate change) would send negotiators who are personally in favor of strong and binding action. The more I see here in Cancun, the more convinced I become that the real internationally-important battleground on climate change is in Washington DC. If the United States could come to a COP conference with a strong national climate policy in place, it would be a paradigm shift that would make everything else much, much easier.

How far we are from such a point, I don’t know. “You talk to a taxi driver in New Delhi or Cancun,” said Mr. Pershing, “and he’ll know at least the basics of climate change and that something needs to be done. You talk to a taxi driver driving to the airport in Cleveland, and it turns out he doesn’t know about what I do and doesn’t really care. And that’s a big problem!” It’s strange to be at the COP16 conference in Mexico and realize that the place that needs the most work is the place I just left. That’s all for today — check back tomorrow & thanks for reading.