Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Of snow, protests, and all things REDD

Rather than being a diligent blogger and posting my thoughts on Cancun as they’ve occurred to me over the last few days, I’m stuck with summing it up in some marginally coherent manner nearly a week into the trip. Here goes:

1. The journey

As Heike has already described, it was no easy task to travel from the UK to the slick, commercial Mexican mini-Vegas that is Cancun. While it seemed at first that the English weather was giving us an unquestionable kick out the door to sunnier pastures, turquoise water and powdery beaches were not to be obtained without a demonstration of our devotion and test of our mutual will. It was highly ironic to spend nearly nine hours on buses, frigid bus stops outside of Gatwick, interminable re-booking lines in Heathrow, and a circuitous ride through most of central England to end up only 45 minutes from Oxford (at a hotel in Windsor). Even so, Lauren and Heike were in amazing spirits, and we had many moments of love for British Airways’ attempts to feed us, water us, and get us off the island as soon as humanly possible.

After an uneventful flight to Miami the day after we were originally supposed to leave Oxford, we were collected at the airport by a dear friend of mine who leads a glamorous life serving as the chef on the private yacht of a ga-jillionaire. She took us on a driving tour of Miami, pointing out the mossy Spanish-style villas and gaudy retro hotels of South Beach, before we settled in for an over-priced dinner and good conversation. Lauren instantly wooed my friend with her spectacular stories of bushmeat studies in Gabon, and Heike (in that quiet way of hers) slipped in humble anecdotes from her childhood in Japan and other magnificent adventures.

Finally, the next morning we arrived in balmy Cancun. One final adventure was to be had, however, as Lauren’s and Heike’s bags didn’t arrive on the carousel (as mine did), leading to wild speculation that the porcupine blood on Lauren’s bag – the result of said adventures in Gabon – had triggered some highly sophisticated and inevitably Patriot Act-activating alarm. We made fast friends with Arturo, the Mexican baggage handler who we were convinced was slipping on rubber gloves for some procedure more traumatizing than searching through our bags.

At last we burst out of the Cancun airport and made our way to our shared flat, within spitting distance of the ocean and well-equipped with all we really need: a functioning internet connection.

2. Not giving talks at COP16 side events

The main purpose of my presence in Cancun was to deliver two talks at side events on Thursday December 2nd and Tuesday December 7th. It has become clear, however, that I’m not destined to perform any compelling professional function while here. My first talk, of course, was derailed by the trans-Atlantic adventure. My second was to occur yesterday. I attended a meeting at the venue on Monday afternoon in order to scope out the seating, audience, and technical arrangements. I arrived at the Cancun Climate Change Village, a sort of climate change theme park hosted by the Mexican government and geared towards the Mexican community. I made my way to the Green Forum, the venue for my side event, to discover that what I thought would be a boring carpeted meeting room with the obligatory microphones and tables was instead a massive outdoor amphitheatre with a 40-foot screen and a thumping sound system. I was both excited and terrified by this, and, after returning home, feverishly revised my slides (mostly containing 3D computer-generated visualizations of local climate change scenarios) to account for pixels the size of my fist.

Yesterday I awoke at dawn and gradually made my way to the buses that would take me to the venue to deliver my talk. Moments before the bus departed, local conference organizers boarded our bus and informed us that a protest was amassing outside the Climate Change Village, and security had locked down the entire stretch of road leading up to it. I soon discovered that one of the other passengers on my bus was to speak alongside me, so we began plotting strategies for being dropped off near the venue and wading through the protest. The Mexican representatives assured us that a) it might be dangerous to walk blindly into a protest about which we knew very little, and b) if we couldn’t make it in, it was extremely unlikely that any attendees would find more success.

Though wildly disappointed that I wouldn’t be able to have the time-honored experience of being pelted with rotten tomatoes by an angry mob in an amphitheatre, a happy twist nonetheless occurred. My co-passengers on the bus asked what I had intended to present, and (curiously) asked that I present to them anyway. So, I did. We had a great conversation about participatory scenario development in cities, the challenges of formulating integrated climate change responses, and the power of visualizations to elicit visceral reactions and drive behaviour change. We collectively decided that visualizations needed to be produced for Durban in advance of COP17, so I left the stuffy bus with my enthusiasm intact.

3. Walmart, George Soros, and Robert Zoellick

I have spent much of the week attending side events (Heike’s and Connie’s on REDD was particularly smashing), and have gotten a fairly good grasp of the major issues up for debate here in Cancun. Last night, for instance, was the launch of the Carbon Disclosure Project’s Latin American arm. I was struck by the incredibly strategic way in which the CDP has gone about harnessing the power of over 500 investors (representing over $64 trillion USD of capital) to request that the world’s largest emitters disclose their emissions. While the uptake has been impressive, I would’ve like to see a deeper discussion of the voluntary and selective nature of the greenhouse gas inventory process, and the likelihood that disclosing emissions actually leads to future reductions.

This evening was a high level event on REDD+ featuring an all-star cast: Secretary General of the UN Ban Ki-Moon, President of the World Bank Robert Zoellick, Walmart Chairman Rob Walton, and many others. Wangari Maathai and Jane Goodall send video messages, which were lovely but made me wonder why the women were kept at home. The messages were predictably broad, political, and generally powerfully in support of fast action on REDD+. I was left with a strong desire for greater specificity, but I suppose that one cannot expect this given the audience.

So there it is: early impressions of a rather peaceful week in Cancun. In the coming days I will hopefully plug back in to the negotiations themselves and leave with a clearer vision of the plans for the funeral of the Kyoto Protocol.

Sarah Burch

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