Rich and Poor Collide in Cancun

Contrasts and bus connections in Cancun provide a metaphor for the climate talks going on there.

COP16 attendees waiting in line for the UN bus (Photo: Gretchen Weber)

For a conference aimed at lowering the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, COP16 sure looks like it has big carbon footprint.  Just the air travel alone for the thousands of people coming to Cancun from literally all over the world is a huge source of emissions.  But once you get here, the excess emissions continue.  Cancun’s hotel zone is one long line of huge beachfront resorts boasting luxury accommodations, all-you-can-eat buffets, and — in the case of my hotel — giant jacuzzi tubs in every bedroom, despite the sign on the bathroom sink suggesting that guests remember to conserve water.

Fortunately (or unfortunately), there isn’t really time for taking baths in enormous tubs, because attendees must spend so much time on the road.  Special UN buses are shuttling people back and forth between the Hotel Zone and the negotiations constantly, commutes made more arduous and carbon-intensive by the added miles and long circuitous routes the buses have to make due to security.  Most of the hotels are located north of the negotiations, but security to attend them is located to the south. Therefore, attendees must first travel south, then north (up the same road) to get into the conference.   A common conversation on the buses is wistfully recalling how wonderful it was at COP15 last year, when attendees could simply take public transit (or walk through the streets of Copenhagen) to reach the talks.

At least the long intervals spent standing in line at bus stops provide a chance to warm up in the hot sun and recover from the Arctic conditions inside the conference centers.  Despite the fact that attendees were encouraged to “dress down” this year: traditional Mexican shirts for men and cotton dresses for women, so that the venues could save emissions with less air conditioning, many of us are wearing jackets and sweaters inside the venues.

One journalist described this year’s conference to me as “an island within an island.”  Military blockades have closed roads at various points, diverting local traffic.  Because of the geography, it would be very easy for people to come to COP16 and never actually see the town of Cancun, which, is a far cry from the Hotel Zone.  There’s a sharp divide between rich and poor here, with the opulence of these resorts just a few miles from abject poverty — which may be a fitting metaphor for the climate talks themselves.

Rich nations and poor ones are, in many ways, lined up on opposite sides of a fence as they sort out how to level the field.  Last year, as part of the Copenhagen Accord, a coalition of developed nations, including the United States, agreed to provide funding to help developing nations deal with climate change: $30 billion by 2012 and $100 billion by 2020. A major issue at this conference is working out how to allocate this money. While much of that money has been pledged, much of it has yet to materialize.

While the United States is moving forward with building and solidifying the Copenhagen Accord, according to chief negotiator Johnathan Pershing, some people (and nations) are concerned that this path will not be enough to stop the Earth from warming to dangerous levels. Even UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres, who heads the UN climate effort, said on Monday that if all the emissions-reduction promises made in the Copenhagen Accord were delivered, the world would be on track for warming more than the two degrees Celsius that the accord was designed to meet.

On Tuesday night I attended a community prayer vigil in downtown Cancun.  There were about 200 local people from different denominations, including Pentecostals and Catholics, gathered to sing songs and say prayers for the Earth.  Victor Menotti, head of the California-based International Forum on Globalization described the Copenhagen Accord as a path to “collective suicide.”

“The Copenhagen Accord doesn’t get us what we need in terms of emissions reductions, financing, and technology transfer,” he said. “All it is, is a collection of voluntary pledges that don’t add up.”