from the outside

I’m stuck on the outside. I got my UNFCCC accreditation through the Association of American Geographers, and they didn’t get as many passes as they asked for, so some of us ended up with only one week’s worth of access to the conference center. One short week of contact groups, plenaries, ‘official’ side events, and what must have been the sweet life.

Once you are outside, the inside is unbearably attractive. There are outlets on the inside – not ever where you want them, but at least they do exist. There are permanent toilets on the inside. There are even negotiations on the inside.

Oh sure, there is plenty going on outside. Part of any COP is the people attempting to be visible on the outskirts – the civil society, the local municipalities, the international think tanks and the business community all meeting in their own constellations and explaining their worlds, largely to their own constituencies, but sometimes to Party delegates, the media, and opposite camps. C17, aka the People’s Space, aka the Alternative COP is happening up at the University of KwaZulu Natal, with speakers and events galore. (I’ve hit 50/50 with scheduled events actually taking place, though.) There is the South African “expo” just on the outside of the gates – flocks of young South African women in matching strapless dresses and colored belts selling Japanese technology as the answer (black dress, orange belt), Siemens technology as the answer (white dress, green belt), Sweden as the answer (I didn’t really understand what was going on there, but they wore white suits and champagne was flowing).  Yesterday I was at a fancy hotel for a side session on biofuels & trade measures – so there are even things happening that are related to my research.

Nonetheless, it’s hard to break out of feeling that none of this stuff matters – that what matters is what is happening on the inside. Of course, when I was on the inside, I wasn’t close to being inside enough – I couldn’t access most of the actual negotiating sessions. Even negotiators sometimes yearn to be more on the inside – the UNFCCC is notorious for ‘informal informal consultations’ in which small groups of select Parties meet to hammer out text and then present it to the rest of the Parties as a precariously balanced text that can’t be touched.

I’m not a political scientist – I’m not trying to predict future texts or discern political backroom maneuvers. I’m interested in a COP as a moment in time when a particular assemblage of actors momentarily comes together and presents a multi-faceted vision of the world – how it is, and how it could and should be. What tools, technologies and knowledges do they employ to sketch that picture? Which voices are heard and which are silent/ced? What types of legal, scientific, and moral vocabularies are drawn upon? Those are questions that can be asked from any number of different vantage points at a COP.

That said, it’s hard not to wish that my current vantage point was just a little more privileged. Which is probably what a lot of folk – not just at this COP – wish for too.


Still one of my favorite organizations out there – Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, blogging from the COP:

Climate change negotiations from the first week, as interpreted by UK youth with hand puppets:


One Comment on “from the outside”

  1. Lindsay Campbell says:

    Nice post, Debby! Feels like a window into a world about which I know very little. Take it all in, these observations are fascinating and I think your research can only benefit from viewing from these different vantage points.

    Taking about assemblages, there was an NPR story about Twitter’s algorithm for determining what is ‘trending’ and how that shapes the news we receive even in this media context –super interesting. That algorithm is definitely an actor doing some ‘hailing’!!

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