El Evento

by Kevin Hoffman:

4th December, 2010, CANCÚN—As we rounded a corner on the Boulevard Kukulcán on Thursday night, we were greeted once again by flashing blue and red lights. They stood atop a bulky blue truck stamped with “POLICÍA FEDERAL” on the side of the road, flanked by Mexican federal officers casually holding assault rifles as they watched the taxi pass.

I asked the cab driver in Spanish if there were more federal police out than usual.  Like the blue phones at many universities, we had not been out of sight of those flashing lights since leaving the airport fifteen or twenty minutes earlier.

“Sí,” he replied.  “Por el evento.”

For the event, he says.

The event is the sixteenth Conference of Parties (COP), held here on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico under December sunshine – quite a departure from Copenhagen, last year’s host city. (To give some perspective, the high in Cancún today is 82˚ F; in Copenhagen, it’s 30˚ F.) There is a “100% Mexico” gift shop that adorns one end of one of the conference centers (the Cancunmesse).  It offers free tequila tasting, sombreros, ponchos, and other souvenirs; I have yet to find out if a similar vendor was established in the Copenhagen conference center.

What is clear is a distinct lack of urgency in Cancunmesse. This is tangible to all those to whom I’ve spoken about their experience in Copenhagen last year, a conference that carried enough weight to draw President Obama there at the last minute to deliver a plea for a global agreement on climate change.

Denise Bode, CEO of the American Wind Energy Association, giving a presentation at the US Center in Cancun. (TYG, Hoffman)

No such visit is planned this year; in fact, while many of the country centers here were open today, the United States center was closed (despite advertising a speaking event by Secretary of Energy Steven Chu; the speech never took place).  In general, the United States Center appears to be there…well, for appearances.  A panel on renewable energy resources featured, among others, the heads of the American Wind Energy Association and the Solar Energy Industries Association.  Both were pitching the United States’ return to world leadership in renewable technology as the event was streamed live to those watching over the Internet.  There’s no such live stream happening in other country centers, and the panel seemed to miss the point of this COP.  An audience member, a part of the Kenyan delegation, stood up to ask what these clean energy associations are doing to help with mitigation in developing countries.  Responses danced around the question, citing large numbers of international partners with their organizations but failing to demonstrate any substantive work in technology transfer or other projects in the developing world.

While I haven’t been able to witness the actual negotiations yet (some sessions are open only to party members), this is, from what I’ve been hearing, frustratingly typical of the US delegation.  They are treating this as just an “event,” putting on a good show to demonstrate a commitment that, frankly, hasn’t been there.  Because of this, much of the world is frustrated with US participation in these talks.

This lack of commitment is typical here in Cancun, as far as I can see.  In pure numbers, there are 15,000 registered participants in this conference: negotiators, staff, journalists, activists, businessmen and women, and other observers.  Compare this with the  New York Times report of over 45,000 people showing up in Copenhagen last year.  The Huffington Post quoted a Papua New Guinea delegate on Monday as saying that the UN process “is growing increasingly irrelevant.”  To be fair, conference organizers did limit attendance more strictly this year, but as far as I know it numerically does not account for the drop in participants.

Expectations were low going into the conference, and I cannot seem to get away from that truth.  Granted, it’s only my second (of six) day here, and debate is really not supposed to get heated until next week, Until then I will watch everyone from dignitaries to esteemed speakers to NGO leaders walk around with brightly colored plastic wristbands under their cuffs or jacket sleeves: their admission bracelet to the all-inclusive resorts at which they are staying.

Today, catching a cab back to Cancunmesse, we passed the tall, sole wind turbine at the side of the Boulevard, about half a mile or so away from the center.  No other turbines are anywhere to be seen.  I asked our driver how long it had been there.

Muy poco,” he said.  Not long.

“Por el evento?” I guessed.