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:


I’m an academi—hey, that looks interesting! Can I draft you a memo?

Most of the past two + years I’ve been really pleased to be in academia, growing into my identity as a geographer. But sometimes I just…lose focus.

Here I am, a lone geography grad student at the UNFCCC COP. And it is huge, it is beyond the grasp of any one person. But I figured I’d follow my issue (biofuels) and see where it took me.

My search for biofuels has taken me to just about every one of the 150+ stands of organizations, endless side events and what negotiating contact groups I can get into (not many), and let me just say: everyone flipping says biofuels are a flipping mitigation measure for flipping climate change, but the UNFCCC process is not so much bringing out the biofuels.

So I’ve tried to be scholastically savvy…I’m interested in how science is used in framing the benefits, risks and uncertainties of biofuels in international negotiations, right? So I’ve looked for a parallel-ish issue within this COP, and I settled on CCS – Carbon Capture and Storage. Basic CCS idea: our main problem is that our energy sources produce too much carbon dioxide…so let’s pump it into the ground. There’s some empty space down in there, we’ve got the technology to do it, and it just so happens that we can actually use the process to flush out extra oil that’s otherwise hard to get out of exhausted wells (Enhanced Oil Recovery).

OPEC countries have been pushing hard for CCS to be included in the Clean Development Mechanism – in other words, for Annex 1 countries (“developed” countries minus US and soon Canada) to be able to offset their domestic carbon dioxide emissions by buying “credits” from non-Annex 1 countries (“developing” countries and the ‘project participants’ (companies, in this case)) for projects that reduce their emissions in some way. So for the immediate future, bringing CCS into CDM will mean paying oil companies to use a not insignificant amount of energy to store some carbon dioxide in the ground, and in the process enable them to extract an incredibly profitable amount of oil.

I wouldn’t say that I’m totally opposed to the basic concept of CCS. But in the past week I’ve heard enough from both the ‘con’ (Greenpeace and CDM Watch primarily) and ‘pro’ (University of Texas economic geology department, the Carbon Capture and Storage Association, etc) camps to feel that this is a technology that calls for precaution. (Turns out nothing raises my hackles quite like an overly confident and condescending economic geologist showing pictures of Perrier to illustrate that an accidental carbon dioxide release would be totally harmless.)

What can I say – I’m not impressed by arguments for rolling out a relatively new, rather large scale commercial technology that are based on ‘there’s absolutely no uncertainty or risk.’ And when pressed, it turns into ‘there’s absolutely no uncertainty or risk because we can choose the perfect geologic structures and monitor everything that happens.’ Right. Well, if that’s the case – and seeing as some of these countries are talking about sticking 40% of our emissions underground, hard to see how there are no uncertainties inherent in that – but even if that is the case, then we should probably make sure that site selection and impact assessments are incredibly robust and thorough, and that monitoring is required for a long long time.

Anyways, the point is, I spent a lot of last week going through draft texts and working with activists to draft language for press conferences and for friendly country delegations. What can I say – it felt natural…it’s what I used to do, it’s what I know how to do … but is it what I’m here to do?

There are other academics here who are unambiguously and stridently political (Professors Michael Dorsey (Dartmouth) and Patrick Bond (University of KwaZulu-Natal) being two outstanding examples). But from what I understand, they specifically study civil society. I don’t. At least, I don’t think that’s what I study.

Remind me again, what does an academic do?

The Mundanities of Negotiations

I have a perfectly fine laptop that I purchased 2 1/2 years ago, and there are many environmental and human health reasons for using a piece of electronic equipment for its full lifetime, and that’s my plan.

But having an exhausted battery that lasts only an hour or so at a stretch presents a problem at a convention center where there are no outlets in any of the rooms where anything (negotiations, plenary, side event) happens. Which is my own problem, yes, and I should get a new battery, yes, but it turns out that I share this problem with a broad group of people. Most notably, many of the negotiators, but particularly those from “Least Developed Countries” (the ‘LDC Group’). Monday in the opening session of SBSTA, a representative of the Gambia was delivering the opening statement of the LDC Group with eloquence and clarity, until she suddenly paused and said “Oh sh*t.”

That’s right, her notebook’s battery had died on her. She proceeded to borrow her neighbor’s MacBook (I’m not sure if it was Georgia or Germany, but it definitely wasn’t the Gabon) and move her thumb drive over so she could continue reading the statement. In the middle of the whole process, with a room of thousands of people waiting, she quipped “Well, that’s how you know this is an LDC.” The whole room totally cracked up.

My battery is on the verge of dying right now, so I’ll make this short. In my experience, negotiations are mostly shaped by the overal geo-political state, individual domestic situations, business lobbies, domestic support and training for a negotiating team, and sometimes pressure from social movements, scientific bodies, and lawyers… but they are also shaped by which individuals are in the room at 4 am on Friday night, their blood sugar levels, their personalities, inter-personal dynamics…. And no doubt, these two weeks, by who in any given room has a laptop with a long-life battery and who does not.

Great Sources of What is Happening Politically and Technically: – view of many civil society groups, but not all. Great articles directed specifically towards negotiators here in Durban – gets run off and passed out every morning. – IISD creates Environmental Negotiations Bulletin at all events like this, and they are priceless. For the policy wonks.


Legal Lacuna in Durban at UNFCCC COP 17

Greetings from Durban!

My friend and colleague Mai-Linh Hong has been holding her own on Legal Lacuna for quite a while. (Thanks, Mai-Linh!) But how can one not blog from the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) negotiations in Durban, South Africa? Herewith are a few thoughts from a lone geographer trying to study a mega-event of governance and spectacle.

These meetings are being referred to as “COP 17” because it is the 17th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (the States that have signed and ratified the treaty), but there are multiple meetings/negotiations happening at the same time. There is the main COP, but there is also the Conference of the Parties that are Members of the Kyoto Protocol (COP-MOP, or CMP) (ie, not the US, and, very soon, not Canada). There are a number of permanent “subsidiary bodies” within the COP, that are made up of representatives of all State Parties (States send politicians and ‘experts’): the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA) and Subsidiary Body on Implementation (SBI). There are also ‘ad hoc’ groups that have more acronyms and are extremely important. That said, I can only cover so much. I’m looking for where biofuels are brought into the negotiations and surrounding discussions (more on that as it comes up), and I’m focusing on the SBSTA meetings, scheduled to last through the first week.

One of the reasons I’m focusing on the SBSTA negotiations is that just two weeks ago I attended the week long negotiations of SBSTTA in Montreal, Quebec. Also pronounced “substa” – but this one is the Subsidiary Body for Scientific, Technical, and Technological Advice of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). The CBD is a ‘sister convention’ to the UNFCCC – along with the Convention on Combating Desertification, they were ‘born’ at the 1992 UN Rio Convention. The CBD acts as something of a baseline experience for me, because I was at the 10th COP in Japan last year and just recently at the 15th SBSTTA in Canada. There are a lot of differences between the CBD and the UNFCCC, which I’ll discuss more in the next few days.

But I thought a SBSTA meeting would be very similar to a SBSTTA – how much difference can one “T” make?

Well. I forgot that these SBSTA meetings are not a stand-alone, low-key affair – they are an integral part of COP17, and therefore these negotiations to provide ‘scientific and technological advice’ are deeply imbricated with all the negotiations happening right now – on the Kyoto Protocol, on whether there should be a mandate for a new legal instrument, etc etc etc. At least 20-30 times more observers were present at this first session of SBSTA than at the past CBD SBSTTA, and the State delegations certainly appeared to be politicians/negotiators rather than ‘experts’ (but I can’t confirm that).

And I should have known: UNFCCC is not known for transparency or access by observers/civil society to the negotiating processes. I happily showed up for the opening plenary meeting of the SBSTA Monday (Nov 28) afternoon, along with many other ‘observers’ (our section in the way back was packed out). After the initial statements from Party groups, the Chair announced that we would go through ‘administrative’ matters so that we could move on to substantive matters Tuesday morning. He then proceeded to run through the entire agenda, putting almost every agenda item into a Contact Group or an Informal Consultation, barely pausing for any statements, and discouraging discussion because it could be done in the side group.

No doubt, there is limited time here in Durban and a very heavy agenda. But from what I’ve seen at the CBD and here with the UNFCCC thus far, there are a number of important dynamics that follow from pushing all discussion into side negotiations:

Language – In Plenary, there is simultaneous translation into the 6 UN languages. Side negotiations are uniformally conducted in English, with no translation. Tough cookies if you have a problem with that.

Transparency – Observers are generally allowed to attend Plenary. Of the Contact Groups, generally the first and last negotiating sessions are open to observers, unless any Party objects (not uncommon). The Chair may allow observers in to the sessions in between or not, as they (and the Parties) see fit. Informal Consultations are never open to observers.

Alternative Voices – In Plenary sessions, there is usually time for representatives of inter-governmental organizations, indigenous peoples, business, and civil society to make statements after Parties have made their interventions. At the UNFCCC, it seems that observer groups don’t have space to speak in the Contact Groups they are actually allowed into (at least not in the ones I’ve attended thus far). (As opposed to the CBD, where observers can speak in Contact Groups but their suggestions aren’t reflected in text without Party support). In the case of yesterday’s SBSTA, there was no time in the plenary for any observer statements. This means the SBSTA negotiations will now run for the week in these side groups, most likely entirely missing the constructive and disruptive statements of civil society.

As much as I acknowledge the cost constraints of any UN negotiations, I do wonder about the cost of shutting out voices of outsiders and even some Parties. How can we get the most robust agreements possible? More thoughts on this in the days to come…

Apologies for the length – apparently it’s hard to communicate the most basic points about the UNFCCC without going in to context and acronyms.

Check out: for some Canadian independent journalists’ take on UNFCCC; – Perspectives of Pacific Island delegates – Law students from Lewis and Clark’s International Environmental Law Project (yes, I was once a proud IELPer)

Past Impacts of Earthquake/Tsunami

Such tragedy and terror from Japan. The past week my thoughts keep going back to the 1755 earthquake and tsunami of Lisbon, Portugal. What I know of it comes from Charles Withers’ Placing the Enlightenment. It occurred during the midst of the Enlightenment period, wiped out 900,000 people (essentially the city of Lisbon, it seems), and had an immense impact on the theological, philosophical and physical lives of Europeans. Some saw it as divine retribution, but it pushed many others away from the idea of a knowing and all-powerful God. As Withers says, it “accelerated existing trends toward materialistic and historical philosophies.”

What impact will this tragedy have on our world – next week? next year? in the next decades? What existing trends will it accelerate? What new ways of being in the world will it encourage? How will we shift in our understandings of who we are and what we mean to each other?

Wikileaks, GMOs, and Kenya

One of Kenya’s main newspapers, the Daily Nation, published an article this week highlighting a Wikileaks cable that sheds light on the passing of the contentious Biosafety Act of 2009, which provides a framework for governing “modern biotechnology” (ie, Kenya will finally allow the production and sale of Genetically Modified Organisms). Unsurprisingly, USAID (the US Agency for International Development) used financial and technical support to “speed up and overcome opposition to the Bill.”

The Biosafety Act was being negotiated during the years that I lived in Nairobi, Kenya, and rumors were constantly swirling about Monsanto’ financial support of key Parliamentarians, of America’s strong arm tactics, etc. What has been brought to light through this cable is not particularly cloak-and-dagger – USAID created linkages among national institutions and helped sponsor a conference. Exactly the sort of thing its Programme for Biosafety Systems was meant to do.

Nonetheless, it was detailed in a Wikileaks cable, and that makes it news. And I have to admit, this makes me happy. Investigative reporters across Africa have been mining the Wikileaks diplomatic cables for American perspectives on the dirty secrets of African governments – has done a great job encourgaing and compiling these reports.They may not make the news in the US, but these revelations on internal African affairs have produced a constant stream of unsettling, nettling reports. On the whole, it seems like it’s often things everyone knows – yes, the ANC is a complete mess; yes, overseas aid money is often stolen by corrupt regimes – but the cables give these stories focus and a weight they otherwise wouldn’t have.