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Cancun (COP 16) 2010 Reports

(Most recent entries at the top.)


Report #3, Cancun’s Question: Is Climate Change an Issue for “Social Movements” or Just Another Business Proposition? December 30, 2010

Report #2, Cancún Climate Summit, December 7, 2010

Report #1, In Cancun, December 1, 2010

Click on photos for larger images


David Simpson is a long-time Northern California bioregional pioneer and community leader based in the deeply rural Mattole River Valley of Humboldt County. Having written about and performed theater pieces with his partner Jane Lapiner on the subject of climate change in many places for several decades, they went to the UN Climate Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark to participate in whatever ways seemed appropriate. His reports are on this website: click Copenhagen to see them. Now David and Jane are in Cancún, Mexico at COP16.  Planet Drum will distribute all of David's impressions and welcomes your reactions at mail@planetdrum.org.


In Cancún

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The reporter relaxing on the beach with friends

Report #1
December 1, 2010
By David Simpson and Jane Lapiner

At the beginning of last year's international climate conference (Conference of the Parties or 'COP 15") in Copenhagen, it was announced that next year's event, COP 16, would take place in Mexico City. Two weeks later, at the end of the conference, word came that the sight of the 2010 event had been changed to Cancún, a resort city built on the northeastern tip of the Yucatan peninsula where it juts out into the Caribbean Sea.

What had intervened to force this change was two weeks of relative pandemonium in Copenhagen. The city, in order to prepare for the event had injected itself with vast corporate hype almost completely at spiritual odds with what turned out to be the most compelling set of actors of the whole event-tens of thousands of climate and environmental activists from all over the world but especially from Europe.

This loosely organized force became increasingly strident both in and outside the conference as it became apparent that demands for social equity and for real progress toward emissions reductions were not likely to be met. Mass protests and near-riots had developed, exacerbated by a large, provocative police presence. It sent a tremor of concern through some of the larger governmental and commercial interests behind who were perhaps cognizant of the great WTO debacle in Seattle in l999. It should be remembered that after that cataclysmic event, the WTO moved its follow-up conference to Cancún, the first of a series of world powers' conferences the locations for which came to be determined at least in part on criteria of isolation from mass population centers and of plain old defensibility. The original tremor seemed to have morphed for the UNFCCC into a full blown paranoia of some of Democracy's messier aspects. Cancún's tourist towers were and continue to be sufficiently fortress-like and defensible. The primary resort areas run along narrow strips of beach, and there is only one road in and out of the whole city. On the major of these strips one enormous palace of excess follows another creating an uninterrupted line of beckoning indulgences that runs off into the distant horizon. Any effective physical challenge to security would have to come by sea. As of this writing, no green battleships filled with angry climate activists have been spotted.

Cancún also has the distinction of being a completely new-built environment. In the early 1980's, less than thirty years ago, the city was hardly a city, with a population of about 50,000. Today it's over a million. The vast majority of that growth is related to an almost unexcelled boom in tourism engineered by investors who saw in the sun-drenched beaches and waving coconut palms golden opportunity. The array of luxury resort hotels that literally sprung up in the boom are rivaled by few in the world besides Las Vegas perhaps or the fabled Mediterranean Riviera. Interestingly enough, the Cancún resort region, with its long thin strips of beautiful tropical beaches separating ocean from lagoons, has become known as The Mayan Riviera.

This is indeed Mayan Country or had been. The place and street names bear witness—Kukulcán, Yaxchilán, Cancún. Great temples and whole towns that had been excavated out of their sunken resting places dot the coastal countryside. The most famous of them, Chichén Itzá and Tulum, are under an almost constant siege of organized tours led by guides speaking an array of languages (Europeans form a considerable block of the tourist trade and Spanish and Italian investment played a dominant role in the overall development of the area.)

We visited Tulum, a whole Mayan town now known to have been a community of aristocrats, architects, priests, traders and, one suspects, lawyers.

You enter the town through a triangular rock arch built into an ancient stone wall partially buried in brush. Suddenly, as you emerge, the landscape opens up to a broad sloping, carefully trimmed meadow around which are situated the grand foundations of what had been palatial homes and public buildings. Built obviously of long-gone softer materials that had sat upon these walls of large, carefully-placed stones, the original mortar still holding, these remnants in their integrity and their relationship to the sun testify to the sophistication and spirituality of ancient Mayan culture.

Scattered about these mowed green landscapes, herds of tourists roamed sheep-like after their guides. Shards of French or Italian or English thrown up into the tropical air bounce among the sun drenched stone ruins and then fade into the profound silences of a long-gone civilization—the last murmurs, one might imagine, of the ancient ones themselves trying with little success to tell us a cautionary tale.

The Mayan's legacy is still alive today. One sees it often in the short strong frames of many in Cancún's working population, in the faces of cab drivers zipping by, instants of recognition of ancient lineages haunting today's inexplicable events. One almost expects a century's deep antagonism to leap from these people who are caught in a low wage, semi-servitude seemingly far beneath what one imagines as Mayan dignity. Instead, they are for the most part studiously polite and thoughtful, their tangible generosity of spirit an anomaly against contemporary Cancún's backdrop of a constant, merciless commerce.

Into this odd cauldron wherein shades of a great disappeared culture haunt a pulsating full-throated materialism, come an ostensible world-saving event with its crowds--the thousands of official delegates from over 190 countries, businessmen in dark suites, idealistic NGO's and other civil society representatives driven by a great sense of urgency, reporters, photographers and camera men-all who constitute the "Inside" of COP 16. On the "Outside" a small army of campesinos and hard core Mexican activists, many with long-festering grievances, arrive on buses from Chiapas, Tabasco, Morelos, Oaxaca, Guerrero, la Ciudad de Mexico-all over the Mexican map.

Meanwhile, an even larger and better equipped army—the Federal Police—are in place by the thousands throughout the city. It is, all in all, a strange social landscape in which to take another crack at solving the greatest dilemma humankind has ever faced.



Cancún Climate Summit

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Espacio Mexicana on the March.

Report #2
December 7, 2010
by David Simpson and Jane Lapiner

The Police

The Policia Federal are everywhere now in Cancún. Gouts of them stationed along various points on the highway, placed according to a plan that is not immediately evident. They are especially thick, of course, anywhere near Cancún Messe, the convention center outside of the city where part of the UN Climate Conference, COP 16, is being held. The other location for the event is the Moon Palace, a luxury hotel near the convention center and accessible by shuttle only. It’s where the dialogue between the parties (countries) is being carried on.

The hotel districts are also areas of police concentration, especially the main ten mile long strip running southeast of Cancún along the coast. Our mildly funky little hotel which seems to be favored for thrift reasons by many climate justice NGO representatives is for the same reason, no doubt, also favored by the Federales—at least 50 are actually staying here on the government’s tab.

Up until yesterday, Monday the 6th of December, these COP cops were as apt to be seen in bathing suits or shorts and T shirts around the pool as they were in full riot gear. As of Monday morning of COP 16, Week Two, many more of them were in the riot gear, AK 457’s worn clipped to the front of their armored jackets almost like accessories rather than weapons, part of a look that you just happened to share with a few thousand other guys and girls. A note: It is edifying to discover that the Mexican Federal Police deploy a reasonable share of women on these teams. Nothin’ like a gal with a full automatic combat weapon to get a guy’s attention. It should be remembered that the Politzi in Copenhagen, harsh as their measures turned out to be, had only clubs by way of weaponry and these proved quite sufficient. But who knows? Maybe there are drug gangs lurking in the maze of Hiltons and Royal Palaces and Royal Cancúns. (Promises of regal treatment are ubiquitous here.) It is true that the Federal Police have suffered grievous losses in the drug wars nearer the US border. 

Whatever the case, it’s very odd being guarded by armed sentries at a hotel where most people are on holidays. We, the police and us, take meals together and greet each other politely when we pass, but their riot gear and weaponry does not fit any usual image of neighborliness. One hardly knows whether the intention of the police presence is to protect us from something or to protect something from us. What are the police here for? If one were glib one might answer: “Escorting the UNFCCC into a musty corner of the world stage” or “To See REDD".


REDD is pretty much all this meeting is boiling down to now that everyone has given up on making progress toward commitments for emissions reductions, at least until next December in Durban. The second issue ostensibly at stake, the adaptation fund promised at Copenhagen, seems to also have slipped into a crack in what is called the UNFCCC architecture. The US is trying hard to divert that one into private hands where there is money to be made and little demand on the federal treasury. Robert Zoelick and that tired old whore, the World Bank, whose services have further immiserated many of the world’s poorest counties, waits in the wings.

For those who haven't grasped it yet, REDD stands for Reduced Emissions through Deforestation and Forest Degradation. It is a carbon trading scheme by which northern energy users get carbon credits to emit more CO2 by paying to protect southern forests, sort of. It ends up usually being at the expense of the human communities who depend on the forest while their governments and elites get paid. Since protection can mean turning natural forests into palm oil or eucalyptus plantations, it's hard to say what will be saved anyway. 

If REDD passes muster by tomorrow and becomes official US policy, many of its critics will throw up their hands in disgust. If it doesn't get passed, which is a strong possibility, the UN will have little or nothing to show for its year-long work and will become even more vulnerable to its enemies who want to see it disempowered. Environmental and social justice NGO's are the most conflicted because they want to stop REDD but fear losing the last chance for a second round under Kyoto which they once despised as weak and inadequate and now are forced to accept as all we have. It is a bleak situation if one is bent on saving the world from climate disaster. For many large commercial interests, especially carbon traders, it is a pivotal moment, filled with hope. 

Certainly another weak or misleading conclusion for this event or hidden agreement like the one at Copenhagen would likely stir a frustration and anger among the gathered tribes, especially if that agreement were seen to have been forced on COP 16 by some cabal of the US and a few other developed countries with help from token little guys like the formerly defiant and now cooperative Maldives. Evo Morales is scheduled to show up at Via Campesina later today, Thursday the 9th, but if one were into political betting, one might not want to wager that Evo could bring off another successful challenge like his last ditch stand in Copenhagen to prevent acceptance by the UN of the infamous US-led Accord, 

Even without last months WikiLeaks revelations of coercive US efforts to gain support for its mutant diplomatic brainchild, everyone knew what the game was. US special climate envoy, Todd Stern had been flexing muscles all year, basically, and spinning off vague threats that the UN process needed badly to be fixed. All because the US didn’t like Kyoto which it never signed. Destroying it and its ongoing process—by many estimations the world’s only hope—was the basic agenda behind the Copenhagen Accord. (Kyoto, it should be remembered, required developed nations to cut emissions 5.2 % below 1990 levels between the years 2008 and 2012. Though many NGO’s who worked at it remember that back in 1997, they thought Kyoto was dreadfully weak, now they sadly see it as the only hope.) So here is the specter of the US and its lackeys still pushing an agreement which by any estimate will doom us to catastrophic temperature increases. Then they claim that the whole UNFCCC process is flawed and should be replaced, blaming a handful of small nations for insisting that an agreement should contain within it a hope that we will survive.

The Outside Amassed

The “Outside" forces in Cancún, meanwhile, are scattered in three, maybe four camps in and around the city. There is the Klimaforum, a Mexican-adapted holdover of the alternative scene in Denmark which was very successful in providing a forum and focus for masses of people gathered in that northern city. These dedicated climate campaigners had come to Copenhagen--and made it clear when they marched 100,000 strong through the city on December 5th of 2009 that they wanted a binding agreement for new and deep emissions reductions after Kyoto. Survival of the species may well depend on it, they reasoned, and when the Danish police started beating heads and making mass arrests, it seemed as though they had aligned themselves with public order over the future of the planet.

The second alternative forum and at the moment far larger is known as ES Mex or Espacio Mexicana. Composed of significant numbers of grass roots people—workers, union organizers, farmers, community activists. This movement has been organized in part by Mexican environmental organizations—Friends of the Earth Mexico, Greenpeace Mexico and a handful of community-based organizations. This group resides just south of City Center in a series of tents of all sizes pitched in a large sports complex holding meeting, discussions and workshops.

The third forum and at this writing the most powerful is the one led by the international peasant and small-farmer organization, La Via Campesina. Thousands of people, many of them small farmers from eastern, central and southern Mexico arrived in a caravan of buses from their rallying point in Mexico City. They have been joined at their newly sprung up tent city by people from all over the world, especially from Latin America, including an indigenous group from Bolivia. They, too, have created a tent city in another, smaller sports complex nearer City Center. A constant round of inspirational if over amplified speeches, some by major Latin American leaders, lubricates the crowd who have managed to cooperate to an unusual extent in terms of living together, sharing space and getting out meals. It is here that Morales is to show up later today, December 9th.

A fourth group, Villa Climatica, is a government spin off situated on the road from the city to the UNFCCC event at Cancún Messe. It has tried with limited success to make itself useful.

Both Es Mex and La Via Campesina staged marches on Tuesday, the 7th that seemed by whatever standards these things are judged to have been successful. Via Campesina got an early start and bussed part way before proceeding on foot to the gate at Moon Palace where they were not welcomed in for a round of golf but instead blocked by a small army of Federal Police who used massive portable metal shields to entirely block the way.

Meanwhile, there were flurries of protest inside—a handful of civil society stalwarts had walked out and briefly held a rally of sorts across the road from the main UNFCCC entrance at Cancún Messe. A series of retributive acts on the past of authorities culminated in the dis-accreditation and removal from the event of several participants including well-known Indigenous Environmental Network leader Tom Goldtooth. A late night report had Goldtooth and another leading activist, Rebecca Summer, reinstated. Had they not been invited back in, there would have been a wave of protest. Now Morales is coming, and the scene for a potentially dramatic playing out of events is set for these last two high ministerial days in Cancún. 

For most places in Cancún, along the Mayan Riviera, it is a normal day. There is a stiff breeze off the coast, shaking and bending the palms and kicking up a little surf. The tourists in their casual search for even greater ease may idly wonder about all the police visible around town but for them, little more is at stake today than the danger of getting too much sun.



Cancun’s Question: Is Climate Change an Issue for “Social Movements” or Just Another Business Proposition? 

(Click on photos for larger image)

Report #3
December 30, 2010
By David Simpson and Jane Lapiner

Photos courtesy of author David Simpson

In seeking opinion to help determine the relative success or failure of the UN climate change conference in Cancun this year, it is impossible not to notice how little coverage of any kind the major news media in the United States committed to the event before, during or after its conclusion. Only the overtly progressive Democracy Now gave anywhere near the same level of attention that it had in Copenhagen. Comparison to the vast hype and hoopla surrounding last year’s event is inevitable. Given the deeply disappointing result in Denmark, the fall off of coverage should come as no surprise. It is the extent of that fall off that is a little shocking. After all, climate change by most estimates remains the gravest threat to face humankind ever. 

At this rate of diminishment, though, annual events organized by the convening agency, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), will soon have all the social relevance of a plumbing and wiring convention which, in some ways, it already is: the display of new professional energy-saving processes and products in the outer halls lends to these events the air of a trade show. The prodigious representation there of large commercial interests and governments supporting those interests reinforces the trade show concept.

But these are not trade shows. They are not simply marketplaces for new technologies or new concepts. Even if such technologies actually promised relief, the disadvantage that developing nations and their citizens endure (as well as poorer people in wealthy nations) are systematically related to the root causes of climate change. They create factors of glaring inequity with which the private sector has never been capable of dealing successfully. The ardent proponents of technological fixes seem always to presume that these new solutions will suddenly be distributed fairly and with compassion, an eventuality that almost any reading of history belies. 

All these things being equal, if you perceive that climate change is a slowly gathering menace that might begin to hurt us sometime in the mid-future and that for now all we need to do is take a few smaller, careful steps—nothing that would impact negatively on our economy—then you might think that what was accomplished at Cancun was adequate. 

If on the other hand you saw climate change as a fast-growing phenomenon that has already done major damage to natural systems and social structures and that we are potentially approaching tipping points from which there is no backtracking, then you might wonder—Do these people know something we don’t? Do they have personal insulation adequate to protect themselves from the fury of a climate gone awry? Do they have a special deal with some God or other? What’s wrong with these people?

Cancun was a repressive venue in several regards. It was chosen over Mexico City for reasons of defensibility. From the start, events and circumstances were organized as best as possible to allow for the outcome that finally emerged and to cut off almost all potential avenues of protest or effective disagreement. In the end, courageous Bolivia, was the last holdout. Its representative was gaveled down by the COP President, the hard-joweled Patricia Espinosa, by virtue of a revamped idea of what constituted consensus.

Late Friday night, a group of us sat at a faux-Indian restaurant midway along the vast hotel row at the southeast edge of Cancun while a friend, the head of a large university-based climate change institute, fielded tweets on his cell from the Moon Palace, scene of the closing deliberations, Periodically he erupted in pained anger. “Screw you, Turkey!” “As..ole France!” “Piece of S..t Ethiopia!” “F..k you Japan!” As one after another congratulatory statement of acceptance of the new deal was read into the UNFCCC minutes. 

It was clear now. The fix really had been in. It could be seen in the grim, tight-lipped repressiveness of the UN’s own security people as they responded to the relatively miniscule challenges that were mounted more or less spontaneously inside the event. It was visible at the desk where press accreditation was granted. Only 2,000 were given press passes as opposed to 6,000 in Copenhagen, 

They weren’t going to let this one get out of hand. No way. Not like it got in Copenhagen. They hadn’t moved this conference from Mexico City to Cancun just to see it get lighted up by real protest here in the heart of the tourist juggernaut. 

The mildly cadaverous, ageing Ivy Leaguer, Todd Stern, chief climate envoy for the US, and his crew had not worked for nothing for so long to make sure no piss-ant little group of Alba or African or Small Island Nations was going to ruin their efforts again to do business in the name of climate change. The US hadn’t been twisting arms for nothing for a full year to avoid a repeat of what had happened in Copenhagen when a handful of nations had been able to swat down the Accord. This potential route, previously undiscovered, around the threat of additional binding emissions commitments and opened, ironically by Kyoto’s single non-signatory, was too attractive for the United States to summarily abandon.

The Party's (nations) roll call of surrender was rivaled in obsequiousness and cheery capitulation by that of what seemed a majority of ex-official NGO, Press, and commercial commentators. If there was a saving grace, it was the occasional caveat amid the veritable ululations of support suggesting that there was still a long way to go. 

A very long way. Were we to take as the basis for our working template only the level of emissions reductions indicated in the Copenhagen Accord—and now in the Cancun Agreements—world average temperatures would likely rise between 3.2 and 5.4 degrees centigrade by the end of the century. Given that the rise to date of .8 degrees C since 1870 has already produced changes of a considerable magnitude—glaciers disappearing, ocean acidifying, permafrost melting, sea level rising, unprecedented heat waves, massive flooding, 300,000 deaths by climate this year alone—the thought of enduring temperature rises 4 to 6 times greater is terrifying.

Do I personally believe that we are condemned to this eventuality because of a refusal to step outside the insulated dome in which business likes to play? Maybe. There is an inveterate, deep-seated cautiousness that surrounds large-scale business and societal investment. Also, society’s long-term normative responses— what’s seen as right, what’s wrong, what’s dumb, what might work—are strongly resistant to change—or change at the rate that climatic circumstances might demand.

We are now in uncharted territory and as normative responses migrate rapidly and caution is seen as incaution in disguise, there will be a shift. It is at this fault line where a substantial realignment is possible. Leverage must be applied. Only what has come to be called “civil society” or the “social movements” are positioned to provide this pressure. 

This is because these agencies and their practitioners are proxies for alliances and social groupings that are both more local and more universal at the same time—the people of the world themselves, whose stake in this is their very lives. Many have been unable, due to accidents of birth or lack of time or resources, to mount effective action in the name of their own and the planet’s survival, but humanity begins now to awaken and take stock. Let the battle for credibility begin!