Climate: The Scene from Cancún

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Last year’s global climate change summit in Copenhagen ran into trouble for all kinds of reasons, but one of the first and worst was logistics. Too many people—more than 45,000—tried to jam into the Danish capital’s too-small Bella Center. The result was hours-long lines for security and accreditation, hot tempers and general frustration—not the sort of atmosphere that engenders compromise. Nor did it help that well over 100 heads of state arrived in Copenhagen by the end of the summit, raising the temperature of the proceedings and creating a security nightmare. And it was cold, global warming notwithstanding.

Cancún, where I arrived on Tuesday, is a little different, to say the least. This is a resort town and the accommodations and actual meetings are spread out. Most of the action is at the Moon Palace, a sprawling, closed resort not far from the city’s airport. Side events take place in Cancúmesse, a cavernous convention center that is a 15 minute bus ride from the Moon Palace—which is itself so big that you need to take another bus to get from the area where the press conferences and actual plenary sessions are held to the media center. (Which of course means that none of the reporters are actually spending any time in the media centers, as journalists have an obnoxious habit of wanting to be near actual news.) Want to get back to the major hotels, where most of us are sleeping? That’s another bus ride from Cancúnmesse, which means that you can easily spend hours going back and forth over the course of a day, traffic notwithstanding. Which at least gives a lot of time for Blackberrying.

The sheer sprawl of the summit seems to be reducing tensions and temperatures among delegates, advocates and reporters alike, though the low level of expectations for the event probably plays a role as well. That doesn’t mean everyone’s happy—as Andrew Revkin points out over at Dot Earth, the smallest (and most vulnerable) nations are angry about being left out as China and the U.S. remain largely deadlocked (and the Obama Administration remains deadlocked with its own Congress). But there are far fewer of the aggressive or grandstanding protests that marked Copenhagen. Instead of meeting activists in polar bear costumes, delegates leaving the airport in Cancún are greeted by a mariachi band. There’s really nowhere to protest, and few people to do it. It’s a working conference, not a theatrical one. “The main sense here is that countries have rolled up their sleeves and come here to work,” says Barbara Finamore, China Program director for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Still, though, the result is something that seems unreal. Cancún is an actual Mexican city, but delegates plodding between their hotels and the Moon Palace wouldn’t know it. Like a good resort, the Cancun summit seems to keep reality at a distance—the reality that it is virtually impossible to see the U.S. doing anything on climate change over the next few years, the reality that China, for all its strategic investment in green tech, seems bent on powering much of its economic growth on coal. There’s good work being done here at Cancún—on avoided deforestation, on climate finance, on technology transfer to the developing world—but actual commitments to cut carbon and curb warming are few and far between.

It’s all a bit disheartening to environmental activists. One I spoke to yesterday was frank about the frustration he was feeling, and the need to find a new way to communicate the risks of climate change and the need for action. (And the risks are real, as is the need—the World Meteorological Organization has said that 2010 is likely to be the third-warmest year on record, while a report by one humanitarian NGO estimated that one million people a year could die due to climate-related causes by 2030.) But there’s no clear path forward for climate activists, not without a fundamental political shift in the U.S., China and other major countries—one that won’t come at a U.N. summit, no matter how tranquilo the atmosphere.