The Climate Change Summit

Chiang Mai's own Po Garden journeyed to Mexico to party with people saving the world. Or at least to party with people talking about saving the world. Or, anyway, at least to party.

By | Fri 24 Dec 2010

The sun is setting at the world’s summit meeting on Climate Change in Cancun. At least two TV journalists came down to the beach to do their closing pieces. The conference is not over just yet. But close enough. At the meeting venue, the blame game has started and it is not going to be over until the wee hours of the morning. It seems the meeting did live up to expectations. Low expectations. However, there is a lot of talk about a ‘100 billion dollars green fund’ that is going to come out of the process – somehow, sometime, and from someone.

Earlier in the day Greenpeace protesters were also here on the beach doing their theatrical protests. They got their young volunteers out of their bikinis and into negotiators’ suits. They put them in the water and in their drowning moments, they threw them large orange rescue tubes and saved them. On the beach they got people lined up to spell ‘Hope’, with a question mark. All of this echoed by the media around the world as it writes and broadcasts its opinion that it is virtually hopeless to expect significant progress towards the deal for climate change.

For us environmental journalists, this is a good assignment. We all stayed on a strip of road lined with all-inclusive resorts with endless buffet lines for food and drinks. Some even had a donkey in the lobby to greet us. We love it because it reminds us of how humans and animals can co-exist in a paradise-like environment. And the irony of this all-you-can-eat environment, while discussing the earth’s climate woes, offered us easy story pickings…as we passed the day filing reports and enjoying the resorts. And what an irony it was: you might expect ‘eco-friendly people’ to not indulge in these plush resorts with a Jacuzzi in every room particularly when they are on a mission to cool the earth from human-induced overheating. Rightly so, eco-friendly people among them are frustrated and frustrations are good friends which inspire many stories.

As for the officials who are responsible for making progress at the conference itself, let’s just say, with no goal set too high, failure is an impossible outcome. “It is not going to be a big bang and it is not going to be the end of the road,” the Deputy Head of the European Union said in a press conference. On the same panel, important delegates from China, Japan, and Lesotho, representing a group of countries the UN calls ‘least developing’ nations, nodded like it was the one thing they could agree upon. Historically, agreement hasn’t been very forthcoming. For one, many of the actors involved have been meeting more than once a year for over a decade. They have learned how to push each other’s button just enough so that everybody can come back for more.

This summit has been the 16th of its kind organised by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), an agency with 194 member countries. The bargaining process started on its 3rd round when they came up with the Kyoto Protocol, the treaty that would eventually say that developed nations all agreed to cut their emissions of greenhouse gases by an average of five per cent overall (compared with 1990 levels) by 2012, in a five-year timeframe starting in 2008, known as the first commitment period. This timeframe is about to expire next year and there is anxiety about how this process will continue.

The negotiators have worked themselves into a complicated situation. It started with an ingenious design…It was able to commit developing nations to a wedding bond to the rest of the world by the idea that those who have burned the fossil fuels in the glorious blaze of industrial revolutions past need not to reduce the green house gases themselves. They can give this burden, along with some hard currencies, to countries that can reduce the emissions or take these gases out of the atmosphere in the cheapest way possible. It is a shotgun wedding. On the trigger is a consensus from the world’s scientific community that says if we continue as we do, your kids along with the future generations are going to live in a world of hurt. They will suffer from failed crops, sea levels rising, severe storms, and all other complications from the weather being extreme and unpredictable.

In one school of thought, this treaty is founded on the idea of market-based efficiency, and the reduction is made into a market-based commodity – we are all happy buyers and sellers in the global bazaar where the best and the cheapest ways to reduce these global warming gases from the atmosphere can be traded like hot cakes. It’s the win-win situation with development and the environment progressing and protected hand-in-hand. For example, Instead of knocking out a perfectly functioning old power plant in one country, the treaty allows that country to save the earth, along with their money, by building or financing more efficient ones in countries that still do not have enough of them. When the treaty really works everyone will benefit and even the worst polluters will gain from it by doing something better, somewhere else.

In other schools of thought this is really annoying. From a right-based perspective, it is simply not fair to people who are stuck next to polluters. In that foul air, the polluter next door can offset their emissions by spending money to do some good somewhere else. They could even plant trees elsewhere and get money to buy rights to pollute. This is the climate justice issue which is also a major frustration for people.

“If I really cared about this, I would probably have slit my wrist open,” said an African Journalist who has been doing this for eight years.

The negotiators are cunning people, and this is a source of frustration. However, there is a lot to be learned from them. If you find yourself in a situation that involves commitment, for example a marriage, do what negotiators do: sidestep the forever clause, and argue for reasonable vows for the first commitment period. Moreover, why call a vow, a vow? Use the treaty’s language and call it something like, a flexible mechanism. If a dowry is involved, make it a big fat number that includes all the money that you have spent and will spend to go about your day. If you are on the receiving end make sure you ask if the money you are going to get is actually “new and additional.” The technicalities go on.

“They don’t care about climate change. It’s bullshit. They only care about their national interests,” said a Chinese journalist observing the process and confirming that the negotiators are looking after their citizens’ interest with clear heads.

There has been a steady growth of frustration as the treaty unfolds. The steadiest one being that the United States of America, the most important polluter in the world, was going to have none of it. Cleverly, the UNFCCC have dealt with this stumbling block by splitting the negotiations into two tracks: without the US, they talk about legally binding cuts that the world can use to make greenhouse gas reduction a set of commodities that are going to sell like the proverbial hot cake beyond 2012; with the US, they talk about voluntary targets that the countries are willing to achieve. The problem that has become apparent in Cancun is that, there are gigatons of difference in the reduction between the two negotiation tracks.

One conversation that the US is not a part of concerns how much the world can agree upon as an acceptable level of damage, which is a 1.5 – 2 degree Celsius rise in the global temperature, and how to have a legally binding agreement to make the cut to achieve it. The other conversation with the US is about what the world can do, which is around a four degree by the end of the century. The people who care the most about the differences are probably those from small island states that are going to be under the sea level if the latter conversation becomes serious. So they want the first conversation to result in something concrete with or without the involvement of the US. They simply cannot make a compromise – certainly with the scientific narration that says that their statehoods are coming to an end. Bless the people of Tuvalu.

But the world is not going to make it easy for them. Japan is voicing its opposition against continuing on the negotiation track without the US involvement. This is also a sensible position for the industries in Japan, and to an extent, sensible for the people of Japan. The negotiation that will demand them to make that cut does not include other big and competing industries of the US. It also does not include China, because China was not considered a developing country in the first place.

So, what about that 100 billion dollars in that green fund? Well, it is pretty exciting. Andrew Steer, the head of the special climate change envoy of the World Bank said that it will change the way countries relate to each other in the world. “It is not aid money,” he said. “It is the money that one country has to pay others for the damages done to the world in the past century.” He hopes that the money will come through his organisation. But there were protests outside the conference with thousands of people unhappy with the idea that The World Bank will play such a pivotal role in the new green relationships between nations. If this treaty was going to be consummated, the negotiators from many developing countries say, they want ‘direct access’ to the funds.

In the Caucun round, the banks have found that the flexible mechanisms that enable one country to pay for the reduction in the cheapest way possible, namely the Clean Development Mechanism projects, are highly inefficient and that more of the money that is generated to the carbon markets as these reductions are bought and sold could be taxed and used to help the people in the world adapt to the consequences of the human-induced climate change. They will talk more about this next year in Durban, South Africa.

Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, contrary to what Wikipedia says, is not expiring. There will be a second commitment period. One way or another it will stumble on. A climate change expert from a think tank in the UK says, “it is [going to be] like a zombie, no matter how you shoot it down, it will keep on coming back,” adding that the UNFCCC process is not the only arena where climate talks progress. About one in three high level meetings in the world has climate issues on the table. The problem is, he says, the regional and bilateral talks will not be nearly enough to slow down the warming anywhere near the levels that the nation states could agree to tolerate.

With one year to go before the end of the first commitment period, the zombie analogy has spread at the Cancun round because there are possibilities that this might not be the only process that the world can count on to achieve a climate future, but, “it is the most democratic process,” said, Brono Sekoli, chairman of the least developed country negotiating block.

Climate change is no laughing matter and though many journalists who travelled to Cancun returned home dejected, at least they maintained their sense of humour!

Chiang Mai’s own Po Garden journeyed to Mexico to party with people saving the world. Or at least to party with people talking about saving the world. Or, anyway, at least to party.

CANCUN, Mexico – Talking climate in Bali was easy. It was Bali, afterall. But the annual UN climate talks – known formally as COPS, or Climate Obsessed Powwows – grew more difficult as they moved from Indonesian tropical paradise to the frigid north in Poland and then Copenhagen in 2009. Even the beach and free booze of the Cancun talks in December were problematic. The official United Nations wedge of world humanity can take a pretty hard hit at your own humanity. They herd you into great big boxes and the clock chases you around the place. People say outrageous things with straight faces. Nonsense is hard on Po.

But still he remained Po. In spite of it, driven by it, he survived the circus by finding his own alternative circus. Or creating one. There was the Proletariat bar in Poznan, where he would lead refugees from the UN summit, beyond its gates into Po Land. Laptop bags and winter coats piled in corners under Lenin’s disapproving glare, the clink of vodka glasses, raucous laughter. Or in Copenhagen there was the free city, Christiania, a broody Hobbiton of anarchist Christmas shopping and Amsterdam charms waiting just two metro stops from the COP and cops and queues and ten-dollar sandwiches at the UN.

In Bali they promised Copenhagen. Just wait two more years. We’ll get something done by then. So, Poznan was lame, but the buzz of Copenhagen kept the mood up. Then came chaos and backroom dealing and wiki-leaked bad faith and soon-to-be-revealed-as empty promises and general rot in Denmark. Po, for his part, remained Po. He could scare you pretty good with stories about not-so-clean development mechanisms for combating climate change, but he was also fast friends with the windpower girls at the tech expo, who always seemed to have free vodka at their gig.

What about Cancun? What thrills did they promise us? “Just wait until South Africa!” Beyond the fact that the all-inclusive tourist mecca (read: all-you-can-drink booze) Cancun ruled out the favourite pastime of scouring the UN for free cocktail parties, what’s changed? The world is still coming to an end, reportedly. They keep having meetings. Whether the UN system to deal with climate change is tanking, or whether the zombie will stumble on, the future will tell. But it’s not going to make something good. “The objective of the conference is to have another conference,” Po said with a big grin and a 40-oz Corona. Everyone laughed; no one bothered to even try to argue him on the point.

There was spin about serious money coming out of Mexico, but … forget that last bit. A fraction of the bailout of a single American bank to save the world? It’s not serious money, whatever they decided in their ‘Cancun Memo’ or whatever. There’s no deal to get people to get serious about using less energy and less stuff.

Po knew all this of course. Nihilism is hard on wiggle words and promises of cash someday to somebody. But he was philosophical about it. “That journalist from Namibia is really cute, man. She’s cool.” A question about the deeper meaning of all this draws a scowl – “man, don’t pull me back into that” – but then he shrugs and gives a 2-minute exegesis to the effect of “What are you, 3 years old? It’s the Man’s house, dude. What did you think you were going to get?”

There are buses from the womb (all inclusive resort) to the first checkpoint and the other buses to the UN and more checkpoints. They do this almost complete loop that you don’t really notice as you’re zoning on the bus. Po noticed though, and it bothered him somehow. So one day he headed south past the checkpoints, rolling free and 100-km-an-hour down the Caribbean coast to recharge his perspective and stare into the bonfire.

Save the world! (Uno mas cerveza, amiga!!) Climate justice now! (“Who’s at the door?” “It’s this guy with a cart for the mini bar. I got six cans of beer and a water. And it’s all free!!!!”) Po looked up at the moonless sky and stars stretching to the horizon, and slowly nodded his head. “Ohhhhh, now I know what they mean about a ‘balanced’ agreement.”

There’s this poor guy from Florida in our group who is visibly ill over this nonsense. “I just can’t help feeling angry when I hear the shit these people say,” he tells me after the 47th press conference in two weeks. The COP dehumanises people. Well, actually, a lot of people were made for this kind of thing, but it’s kind of hard on some people. And some people will just never come back. No way. F%#k the COP.

Po will be back though. In Africa, are you kidding? But he will remain, through it all, Po.

Po Garden was not harmed in anyway in the writing of this story.