Dispatch from Cancún: First Week of the UN Climate Talks


Reporting for Duty, Cancún, Mexico

CANCÚN — Last week began this year’s United Nations climate summit in tropical Cancún, where the sixteenth Conference of the Parties convened with the expressed aim of delivering our planet and its inhabitants from the horrors of global warming.

The negotiations come at the end of a remarkable year, though those suffering the early effects of climate change might put it differently. During a period in which the average global temperature reached the highest yet recorded, over 1,100 Pakistanis lost their lives in a flood that covered one-fifth of their country, Moscow saw its daily death tolldouble as a third of Russian grain crops failed, and  the livelihoods of thousands in the American South were choked away by a combination of petroleum dependence and corporate wrongdoing that resulted in the bleeding of nearly five million barrels of oil, much of it still lapping at their shores.

As International Director of the Amazon Environmental Research Institute Daniel Nepstad recently said at a conference on forests and the climate: (with the exception of a rising temperature) none of these events are definitively caused by climate change, but they are all consistent with a world that is increasingly warming.

With that in mind, there is no justifiable debate about what is driving our changing climate or the seriousness of its danger. The scientific community agrees: burning fossil fuels and slashing rainforests brought us to this precipice, and if we don’t pull away now,they tell us, we will take the long plunge down. Contemplating this problem, as well as the task of convincing some of my peers that we both can and should devote ourselves to solving it, I’m reminded of George Orwell’s sense of urgency in The Lion and The Unicorn, where he warned his fellow citizens to nationalize their economy or risk losing the Second World War:

Now however, the circumstances have changed, the drowsy years have ended. Being a Socialist no longer means kicking theoretically against a system which in practice you are fairly well satisfied with. This time our predicament is real. It is ‘the Philistines be upon thee, Samson’. We have got to make our words take physical shape, or perish. We know very well that with its present social structure England cannot survive, and we have got to make other people see that fact and act upon it.

Change only the word ‘England’ to ‘Humanity’ and this story is about us. Our carefree childhood days are over.

Standing in the halls of the Moon Palace on the first day of the conference after watching US negotiator Jonathan Pershing deflect almost every question the press asked, I’m heartened to be stopped by a beaming young woman. Her name is Christine and she wants to know if my friend and I are reporters. She smiles when I say yes, and reaching for a packet of paper, tells us she’s with SustainUS, a youth delegation comprised of 20 Americans. One of their press releases, now in our hands, reveals that young people from China and the United States have joined forces to demand that negotiators do their best to keep future generations in mind during deliberations over the next two weeks.

A few days later, Christine and I find ourselves having drinks in the Cancún Messe—a cold, blindingly fluorescent hall where civil society groups gather to meet delegates and members of the press. We have a few things in common. Both of our childhoods played out against a backdrop of staggering natural beauty, hers near a coast in Florida and mine in the Pacific Northwest wilderness. We both come from families that encouraged a strong sense of stewardship over the wild places near our homes. She spent part of her early 20s working as a reporter, and is now pursuing a Master’s Degree in Environmental Politics at the University of Central Florida, where she nurses a passion for sustainable development and indigenous politics. After graduate school, she hopes to build a career as a social advocate, tackling the minutia of environmental policy. Her dedication is impressive. She strikes me as one of the few among us who is successfully shaping the raw passion of her youth into a viable, rewarding career.

While we talk, a few twenty-somethings in bright blue 350.org shirts—members of Bill McKibben’s campaign to stop global warming—are stuffing leftover pamphlets into a large duffel bag just a few meters from where we sit. A large group of young people that were gathered on the floor near a cardboard replica of a Mayan pyramid plastered with bright photographs of oceans and mountains has dispersed. It’s the end of the day. Christine is yawning, and I expect the caffeine from my third cup of coffee to wear off soon. I think about how happy I am to no longer be sitting in conference rooms listening to delegates speak incomprehensibly, when as if on cue, Christine says the most clear and decent thing I have heard since the conference began: “We need to take care of the place we live in and we have a responsibility to take care of others as well. For me this is not a sacrifice.”

I smile in agreement, and ask her what she believes is the job of young people in the effort to prevent the worst of their possible futures. She says she’s here to learn the political game and hopes to share her knowledge with others back home. When I ask if she thinks we have time to wait for UN negotiators or if they’ll design an effective climate deal, she responds with optimism: “I have faith in the system. Continuing the dialogue is what’s going to get us there.” A little while later, when our conversation turns to the market’s starring role in almost every climate plan under consideration by leading negotiators, she’s less sure; a gentle reminder that having “faith in the system,” often requires one to be selective with the facts.

There are more than a few reasons to doubt the rationale and political will of those behind the wheel. It was late in June of 1988, over twenty-two years ago that NASA scientist James Hansen told members of the US Congress that man-made global warming is here. During that same summer, a conference of atmospheric scientists in Toronto agreed that climate change represents a threat to human survival second only to nuclear war. Now, two decades later, we find ourselves in Cancún, in the sixteenth year of UN deliberations, where every negotiator I’ve spoken to is talking about limiting andpreparing for global warming—not stopping it.

This fact is unsettling during the conclusion of the conference’s first week, when DARAand the Climate Vulnerable Forum released their Climate Vulnerability Monitor 2010, a peer-reviewed report that attempts to classify the world’s regions, countries and communities in terms of vulnerability to climate change based on the latest available data.

The report’s opening pages read:


A climate death is one that occurs as a consequence of increasingly common violent storms and floods, epidemics, severe drought, desertification and rising seas, the report says.

As if these facts are not distressing enough, read what Michael Zammit-Cutajar, former Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC and one of the Monitor’s trusted advisors told me in a hallway immediately after the report’s release, when I asked how it would be ensured that the findings are taken into consideration in this year’s negotiations:

“Negotiators don’t take studies into consideration,” he said. “You know, you don’t expect them to pick it [the report] up, and have it make a difference to what they’re saying now. That takes time. You can’t just discuss it and put it on the table.”

When I asked whose responsibility it is to ensure the report’s findings are included in UN deliberations, Zammit told me it was up to the authors, that this process thrives in a marketplace of ideas. You have a conference and a trade fair, he said, and once again: these things take time.

I told him it is troubling to learn that the contents of a brand new, authoritative, peer-reviewed report that outlines the dangers and solutions to a problem scientists tell us is likely the greatest present threat to human survival—and which he just spent the better part of an hour promoting—would not immediately be included in our leaders’ deliberations. He and a nearby delegate scoffed. He pointed to the report in his handbag, which he opened and pushed close to me. Lowering his head to look me in the eye, slightly above his spectacles, he asked: “Do you have time to read that? How long do you think this takes to read? You don’t expect a dense report like this to have an impact across the corridor here on negotiations.”

“He’s right,” I thought, a moment after I turned off my microphone and gave him my thanks. “He’s exactly right. We don’t have that kind of time.”