Irony and Idealism in Cancun: Where will leadership come from?
Published 07th December 2010 - 0 comments - 758 views -
I am currently sat in Cancunmesse, a giant heavily air conditioned industrial building where under the strip lighting it’s a bright as bright can be, all day long. Cancunmesse is the area of the conference where side events (campaign lectures, panel discussions, technical briefings, media events) occur. The hall kind of looks like a quarantine area designed to hold aliens or people if we ever do extra terrestrial contact. Every delegate must pass through the security checks here before getting a further bus to Moon Palace where all the actual negotiating takes place in a number of larger, more decadent buildings. I am sat here because the internet connection in the hotel were in is a whopping $24 dollars a day, a little more than I can manage and not ideal if your purpose here in Cancun is to blog about the talks!
I have been here for a week now (I flew out early) and I feel it appropriate in this post to pursue a loose narrative about what the place is like and the atmosphere of the talks. In the first week I have been staying with the UK Youth Climate Coalition crew in downtown Cancun. They are a great bunch of people, a really close, diverse, inclusive, energetic, and positive bunch of young people here to make a contribution and foster youth engagement back home in the UK. The UK youth are part of a wider group of young people from all over the world that make up YOUNGO. YOUNGO is officially recognised as a constituency under the UNFCCC, this means that it is an official stakeholder in the process and is able to make interventions in negotiation sessions, contribute to submissions and lease with the secretariat of the UNFCCC. Already so far YOUNGO have had some big successes at COP16 but I will save that for another blog post.
I think the first thing to start off with is the place itself. The hotel district and indeed the venue of the conference centre itself are set on manufactured land, literally shipped in concrete and sand where there were once mangrove forests. This is what is left in their place:
There is some irony in the fact that these most important of negotiations take place on an environmental cemetery. The back waters of the lagoon are still and dead, the lack of disturbance and warm tropical sun causes the smell of hydrogen sulphide (sewage like) to waft seaward, blocked only by a line of giant 5* hotels 5 miles long. In my broken Spanish I attempted to have a conversation with a taxi driver about it 2 evenings ago. He said he remembered when Cancun was just a small town and the area where the lagoon is, was full of life. It’s hard to gauge how the locals feel about the development. The taxi driver clearly was not happy about the destruction of the mangroves - and parts of Cancun do imitate the USA's worst stereotypes to a worrying degree - but having travelled around Mexico previously, Cancun is notably more affluent than many other regions I have visited.
There is a second irony here also. Many delegates (especially from developed countries) are staying in these 5* hotels. Not surprising perhaps, after all where else can ten thousand odd people fit in any town in the world. However as Lord Nicholas Stern repeatedly states, the climate change problem is inseparable from the problem of development. Neglect to attend one and both will fail. Not tackling climate change will undermine all efforts to reach the millennium development goals and curtail, if not reverse development for many nations (that is providing the still even exist in the case of small island states). Not ensuring that development occurs on a low carbon pathway will ensure that climate change is not tackled. In short, the welfare of the world's poor is crucial to a strong climate agreement. With this in mind, the fact that the talks sealing their fate are being held in a place that scarcely resembles the real world is a little strange indeed. I for one would like to see a UNFCCC conference one year held in a place that resembles the lives of those that an agreement most affects. Maybe even a glass walled centre overlooking slums somewhere, or at the very least somewhere that reminds us why we're all here - to safeguard the future livelihoods and wellbeing of the vulnerable, the young as well as the environment itself.
Perhaps that last statement was naively idealistic and rhetorical in nature. Maybe were not all on the same page for that one. In many ways it would depend on 1) if you believe climate change is a problem 2) that you care for others outside your boarder, and 3) that you see taking action as desirable. There is certainly a mixture of views scattered among the 193 signatories to the UNFCCC. The USA almost verges on climate denial now when it comes to actions - god help us if the Republicans get in! Canada is little better. In fact it's worse and is held to ransom by Alberta, the tar sands region (despite popular opinion backing climate action), Canada failed to even try to meet it's Kyoto targets (now some 30% above) and was the only country to downgrade it's level of ambition after Copenhagen. The OPEC countries are purely obstructionist in the process, they see option three as a large NO. The EU does a good job of talking itself up on numbers 1,2, and 3. A Latin American negotiator whom I spoke with on the plane told me that this was a classic negotiating tactic of the EU, to try and play the bigger person and make any concession seem like a great act of graciousness. Apparently it’s very successful. Never the less, I am proud but not satisfied with the EU’s efforts. We failed to raise our ambition to 30% by 2020, due blocks by Eastern European member states, although Connie Hedegaard today stated that their attitude was changing, if more because of energy security reasons than for climate. However as Mrs Hedegaard also states “It is not Europe that is the problem, is it other main parties that have yet to commit that are holding up the process.” - Ahem (USA), Ahem (Canada)
I guess what I am getting at here is that being in a place like this is very informative because it gives you a slightest window into the world of raw power; the world where ethics can be an uncomfortable afterthought to the imperative of national interests, specifically the interests of powerful national industries and mega corporations. This is the ruthless international world of real politik where in a sense we are all at war with one another despite much lauded globalism and common values. It is a situation so complex that any decision necessarily involves a compromise in values with huge uncertainty in outcomes. Wikileaks has done a great job of revealing this world to us this week and I commend the following articles to you as a way to gain insight in the area:
We are anchored in a world of low ambition with reluctance from all parties to lead. The USA, the country which many look to for leadership has been absent in this role for years now. In fact if anything it has been subversively destructive from the very beginning as the Wikileaks articles show and this recent (excellent) article by Bill Mckibben shows. In thinking about the lack of leader ship the words of the Papua New Guinean delegate at Bali are foremost in my mind.
After this the USA did concede ground and the Bali talks progressed. We need more moments like that if we are to get a strong agreement. More moments that somehow seem to cut though the rhetoric, and scaffolding propping up the bullshit public negotiating faces that civil society and parties are always presented with. We need more than this though, we need some countries to just say screw it, were going to do it anyway were going for green growth or green development 100%. We’re going to create new markets, new economies and were going to support each other in doing so. The rest of you guys are going to be left behind so you better start following. That’s real leadership, that’s real conviction. There are tentative signs that a coalition of the willing may come about, at the very least on the sub national level this is happening. Take California for example, plowing ahead with it’s climate legislation contrary to the dictate of federal government, there are many other examples like this.
So who will show leadership here? The world needs it badly. I’m glad to say that today it seems like the UK is doing just that. The Climate Change Committee just recommended legislating for a 60% cut in emissions by 2030, the first such target in the world. This combined with the UK’s commitment to reach the 0.7% GDP overseas development aid before any other country really shows moral leadership, hopefully this can rub off. China has also made a commitment to make its carbon efficiency targets legally binding, this is good but the level (45%) is lower than many expected. Leadership is also coming from another surprising corner. According to Richard Branson (and I have my suspicions regarding business), global business can drive a low carbon future where governments cannot. Much as I doubt that profits can save the world, mega corporations do in fact have more power than governments because they are unaccountable to citizens. Perhaps they can use their evil powers for good this time. Just this year we saw the battle of the billionaires in California over Proposition 23 (Anti climate change legislation). The high tech, eco billionaires won the funding and PR battle. The proposition failed and California’s climate bill lived on. Could this be the start of a trend where business interests become more aligned with climate action?
I do hope because if nothing else governments seem to listen to them.
About the author
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