03 December, 2010

Closing the doors in Cancun, or how transparency is gone

Sergio Abranches

How the physical environment is segregating the key players of global climate politics, and decisively influencing the way negotiations take place at COP16.

The physical environment is clearly having a significant impact on the climate and dynamics of the negotiations here in Cancun. The set-up isolates negotiators and observers from the NGO’s, and makes the access of the media to the delegations far more difficult than it was in Copenhagen, for instance. It also makes contact between the media and NGO’s discontinuous and far more demanding. The distances involved are a major factor as well as the overall poor logistics for COP16.

The physical set-up of a meeting has a clear impact on behavior. The relationship between physical environments and behavior has already been widely documented by anthropological, sociological, socio-psychological, and political research.

The ExpoCenter at the Moon Palace, where the delegations meet officially, and press briefings are held, lacks a  media center. The media center is on another building of the Moon Palace, and one can only move from “lobby to lobby” through minibuses. This morning I had to wait 18 minutes to get one of those minibuses. One can easily waste half an hour just moving from within the huge and labyrinthine resort housing the official proceedings of COP16. You waste time. To meet the schedules requires leaving to places earlier. The lack of appropriate housing for the media closer to where the meetings and press briefings occur reduces the capability for real time reporting.

I am writing from an empty media center. There are only nine journalists here. I can see a meeting of the Working Group on the Kyoto Protocol on the screen, but the phones won’t broadcast what the delegates are saying. This empty media center, overlooking the caribbean sea, with a mute TV screen showing delegates discussing one of the key issues of this global meeting on climate change is an eloquent portrait of the present climate.

Unsurprisingly small-groups informal meetings and informal consultations dominate COP16. Delegates complain about the lack of official drafts, there are no texts for them to discuss and negotiate formally. Brazilian chief climate change negotiator ambassador Luiz Alberto Figueiredo referred yesterday to this bias towards informality as an “intensification of informal consultations” on all the dimensions of the negotiations. He sees this process as one that could lead to more objective formal negotiations latter on. However, he also sees some risks if these informal consultations are used to go too far on the details of each issue, loosing the overall, systemic view of the process.

Other negotiators think that informal consultations lack transparency and representativeness. As a political analyst, I understand the need for informally tackling the harder issues paving the way to smoother formal negotiations. I also understand why diplomats have a bias towards small-group talks. However, when they become the dominant activity in a meeting that requires formal procedures, they can easily become a way to delay decisions.

NGO’s are a victim of this isolationism. The cannot either mobilize or advocate efficiently through all the barriers imposed to their participation. The whole meeting becomes tribal. Delegations talk only to delegations, and tend to follow the lines of elective affinities. NGO’s end up by talking basically to environmentalists and experts they already know well on side-events. They are segregated from the main events.

On one of her witty press briefings secretary Christiana Figueres invited the media to go to the “climate change village”, she described in strong colors as a wonderful place the Mexican government has built for the NOG’s. “The climate change village is where things happen. So stop looking for where things happen. Just go there”. She was referring to night life obviously. But the fact is that the “climate change village” is a sort of NGO zoo set up to separate the environmentalists from the place where the things that really matter happen.

Christiana Figueres is has a powerful personality. Her eyes glitter with intelligence, but as a diplomat’s eyes they’re opaque to her sentiments. They won’t tell you whether she is sincere or not. Today she strongly defended the participation of stakeholders. She also said the participation of NGO’s and stakeholders is very welcome. She also said NGOs were fully participating “following electronically” what the delegations are doing confined in the Moon Palace. The fact is that while at the Subsidiary Body on Implementation (SBI) delegates are discussing how to create official tracks for stakeholders (NGOs included) participation, this participation was drastically curtailed on Cancun. A large part of this spatial confinement is the responsibility of the Mexican government on the presidency of COP16. Mexican president Felipe Calderón was probably negatively impressed by the democratic environment inside the Bella Center, in Copenhagen, where he started planning what to do about Cancun’s COP. But Figueres is also responsible for deciding not to insist on a more inclusive and transparent meeting.

In Copenhagen, it was very difficult to reach the Bella Center. But, once inside, the environment was an open one, very democratic, where everybody had an opportunity to see and talk to everybody else. In Cancun, on the contrary, COP16 has become a “closed-doors” event, on a “palace”, that has an architecture and a decor of doubtful taste, and a space organization that makes very easy to implement an isolationist organization.

Global climate politics is not only about governments, observers and official delegations. It has three key actors: governments, global civil society and the globalized press, including news oriented and scientific blogs, and social media groups. The separation of these actors is not a productive way to look for good working results. Watchdogs and advocates are crucial not only in the quest for effective solutions, but also in ensuring effective implementation. Cancun may still yield good results. But transparency is gone.

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