Shielding Climate Talks from Public Scrutiny

It’s the beginning of the second week of the climate summit here in Cancun and everyone — from NGOs, to governments, to the policy wonks — is starting to get jumpy as it becomes clear that a battle is brewing between those who want a climate deal at any cost, and those who only want one that is just, equitable and effective.

It started yesterday before we even left the hotel zone.

I’ve been hitching a ride on the Friends of the Earth bus to the negotiating venue — an “all-inclusive” resort called the Moon Palace. Actually, it’s quite exclusive. It’s located an hour from the hotel zone and only accessible after passing through multiple security screening points and additional bus trips.

Holding talks at the Moon Palace srategically discourages participation from all but the most dedicated climate wonks. The Mexican government and the UN climate convention secretariat have said they don’t want a repeat of last year’s talks in Copenhagen where people who weren’t officials (oooohhh scary) participated in a creative diversity of actions to get government delegations’ attention on key issues.

Last year, the secretariat went so far as to kick Friends of the Earth out, claiming that flash mobs (spontaneous gatherings in the hallway usually accompanied by a stunning visual and catchy chant) put delegates at risk.

Huh?

I guess that the secretariat was concerned that by being exposed to regular people’s ideas and demands government officials would be on the hook for having to respond. Being seen as uninterested in whether your negotiating positions doom small island states to inundation or African communities to drought and starvation can certainly be risky — especially if the press catches you.

So instead, this year, the secretariat worked with the Mexican government to assemble a temporary warehouse — which they’ve decorated with posters, potted plants and “ethnic” baskets to make a bit homier — as a civil society holding pen.

To get to the actual negotiations at the Moon Palace you have to get on a second bus. Last week, traffic flowed freely between these two spaces. But now, anyone going to the Moon Palace has to pass through an additional checkpoint before boarding the shuttle bus. And if last year is any indication, you can bet that civil society will be stopped from even getting on the bus.

Access to the actual negotiating hall is already restricted for Tuesday to a total of just 100 non-governmental observers from all of civil society around the world.

It’s astonishing to think that we — the members of the public here in Cancun — are allowing the secretariat t get away with this. But we are.

I think it’s mostly because of the threat of being locked out of climate negotiations forever if you make a fuss. And for many of the people who came here, attending these global conferences is their life’s work.

Climate justice activists, however, are a bit more averse to flying low under the radar. But before even getting anywhere near the venue our bus was pulled over by the federal police.

Most of us were busy reading the latest negotiating text or checking our BlackBerries and didn’t notice until an officer in full swat gear and touting an automatic rifle boarded the bus.

It turns out that as we passed the first check-point on the road to the Moon Palace the police noticed that our bus was registered in Chiapas. Not only is Chiapas home to the Zapatista movement — which has taken on the Mexican government with gusto in the past two decades — it’s also the state from where a caravan of peasant farmers had come from over the weekend.

So we sat in the bus for about an hour while the bus driver smoked a cigarette on the grass and the police tried to figure out if we were an uprising of militant campesinos.

We were finally allowed to move ahead, but under the condition that the federal police escort our bus to the negotiations. There was one black Hummer in back, and another one in front, each with four heavily armed soldiers training machine guns on our coach.

I have to admit that I think we all took the police harassment as a kind of a badge of honor. But it’s becoming crystal clear and making me increasingly uncomfortable that the Mexican government, as the climate talks’ host, and the countries and institutions that control the UN climate convention, don’t want public scrutiny of the kind they received in Copenhagen. They have made careful arrangements to castrate any possibility of a potent climate movement impacting their conversations. And they’ve got a contingency plan that includes very heavily armed security forces if that should fail.

Given the lack of direct action in the halls, and a dearth of interventions to call attention to a general lack of climate justice, it seems — disappointingly — that the pacification plan at the climate talks has worked. I hope to be proven wrong in the next four days. In the meantime, I’m marching in the street with Via Campesina between plenary sessions.