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CLIMATE CHANGE: Lost in Cancun

Diana Cariboni * – IPS/TerraViva

CANCÚN, Mexico, Dec 3 2010 (IPS) - “The hurricane season officially ended on Nov. 30,” a local shopkeeper told this journalist reassuringly as she entered his store with her hair blown in every direction by the wind on a drizzly, cloudy day.

Mayan pyramid of criticism of polluting countries in Cancunmesse.  Credit: Diana Cariboni/IPS

Mayan pyramid of criticism of polluting countries in Cancunmesse. Credit: Diana Cariboni/IPS

The bad weather in this normally sunny resort city in southeastern Mexico is an echo of the new wave of climate swings around the world that have practically coincided with the Nov. 29-Dec.10 16th edition of the Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP16).

Extreme cold and blizzards have already killed 20 people in Europe, mainly homeless people, and have thrown airports, railways and roads into chaos. Meanwhile, heavy rains and flooding have claimed lives in Latin American countries along the Caribbean coast: Colombia, Venezuela, Panama and Costa Rica. The World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) reported Thursday that 2010 is “almost certain” to be one of the three hottest years since temperature records began in 1850. And 2001-2010 was the hottest decade in history.

Nature is sending a message that could not be more timely. Scattered around hotels, convention centres and camps located dozens of kilometres from each other, the climate change negotiators and activists who have come to the biggest annual meeting on the issue seem to have lost the nerve to pursue the initial goal of the talks that began 18 years ago.

That goal was a legally binding global treaty to drastically reduce the pollution that has unleashed climate change. Since the chances of reaching that objective by Dec. 10 are close to zero, the efforts are now heading in a different direction.

The talks, presentations and parallel activities are focusing on the money needed by poor countries, technical innovations and models for action that can be replicated. In short, a massive search for lifelines in an inevitable flood.

“A lot of things are going on at different levels,” Carbon Trade Watch activist Joanna Cabello told TerraViva. “Some are looking for a lifeline, to gain more allies, while others are lobbying for ‘improvements’ in financing and mitigation and adaptation policies.”

But “we are entering a stage where citizens, movements and some governments are very aware of the powerful manipulation that is taking place, and are fed up,” she added.

However, it’s not that the fundamental goal has been forgotten in the talks, another activist said. “It’s about laying the bricks for reaching a binding accord,” which is why many of the discussions are centred on achieving things that are actually possible.

For example, a global climate fund that would operate as a “one-stop shop”, in which nations of the developing world would be represented and the financing would go where it is needed. At least half of these funds would have to go towards adaptation to the impacts of climate change.

But in Cabello’s view, “the funds that are receiving so much attention have many gaps that allow the entry of private capital, and maybe the carbon market itself, without mentioning the highly criticised role of the World Bank as a facilitator” of those resources.

“Industrialised countries and corporate lobbies, interested in strengthening and expanding the carbon markets, are doing everything they can to present these schemes as easy fixes and quick money for poor countries,” said the activist, who supports the actions of the Global Justice Ecology Project and the Indigenous Environmental Network.

“Cancun was never going to be where we would get a global deal to tackle climate change, but the talks are in far better health than they were at this stage in Copenhagen (at the COP15),” Barry Coates, executive director of Oxfam New Zealand, told TerraViva.

“We can see real progress such as setting up a fair climate fund, and while the hype of Copenhagen has been replaced by sobering realities of complex negotiations, we could very well walk away at the end of these talks with hope for a deal in Durban (South Africa, where the COP17 will be held) next year,” Coates said.

Will the world have to wait just one more year? According to a report released by Oxfam this week, time has already run out for the 21,000 people who died as a result of 725 extreme weather events in the first nine months of 2010.

That is more than twice the number — 10,000 people — killed in 850 extreme weather catastrophes for the whole of 2009.

One reflection of the growing sense of demoralisation is the number of people who have showed up for COP16. The organisers say there are 20,000 visitors, compared to 50,000 in Copenhagen last year.

But estimates are hard to come by since the official venues are spread all over the city, the conference is isolated from civil society, and the parallel Klimaforum 2010 is being held at a camp in the middle of the jungle.

Cancún has more than 35,000 hotel rooms and there are 40,000 more rooms in surrounding areas. People who depend on tourism in this city made up of block after block of hotels and shopping centres had hoped COP16 would push hotel occupancy rates up to nearly 90 percent.

“But we are at less than 80 percent; we had hoped for more,” a taxi driver complained.

On the other hand, an enormous number of locals have found work at COP16, in logistics, security and services.

“Four hundred temporary workers” are providing assistance for delegates at bus stops alone, explained a young woman who just graduated from college as a psychologist. All of the staff hired are Mexicans, which is a good thing, because of the unemployment, she added. By contrast, there are no volunteers at COP16. A sign of the times?

(*This story appears in the IPS TerraViva online journal published for the U.N. Conference on Climate Change in Cancún.)

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