The tone in Durban is focused and preoccupied. Thousands of delegates march to and fro, big bags and nametags flying, rarely alone and usually deep in conversation. Yet this busy tension is tempered by the beachy, humid atmosphere which one cannot avoid. The expansive air pervades every room, even the magnificent and air-conditioned ICC, and there's an inevitable lull after lunchtime when everyone’s brains are addled by the heat. (Water, caffeine, and sugar are a must to survive the hours of open sessions.) Everyone strides about purposefully, places to go and people to see, but trickles of sweat under formal clothing reveal the constraints under which we are operating.
Durban is an exercise in constraints and contradictions, on many levels. The countryside appears lush and green, the city sparkling alongside the beach. First impressions make it seem inviting, and we were enthralled upon arrival at the King Shaka Airport. But on Tuesday morning, Spencer and I experienced firsthand an anxiety-inducing situation with an inept taxi driver (including an unexpected tour of the least tourist-friendly parts of the city and a near accident). Furthermore, our hosts have repeatedly emphasized the unsafe nature of the city, and caution us against walking anywhere. The ocean is dirty, the streets unsafe, the people poor, and the government corrupt, they say.
But once we've flashed our badges and stepped inside the comforts of the UNFCCC zone, it's hard to remember these warnings. All is clean, cool, and coordinated. Police and guides stand on every corner, and the entire complex is surrounded by barricades and gates. We go through security every day to enter or exit the area. The convention center is incredibly posh and well run, and stands next to a luxurious Hilton hotel. It seems to be our haven within the otherwise unknown city, and I don’t yet know how much we will venture beyond its bounds.
I also see a contradiction within the very term "negotiations," because until now, what we have seen has been anything but negotiating. We split our days between side events—non-negotiation events run by civil society groups—and open plenary negotiations or informal consultations. The side events are interesting and informative, but do little to actually affect policy-making in the ICC. The Exhibition Hall is very much its own space, and the speakers are primarily NGOs—delegates rarely make their way over. Meanwhile, across the way, the ICC plenary sessions are full of delegates talking at each other, but rarely with each other. It seems as though each has an agenda to promote and a script to read (at least in public), with little regard for the relationships which need to be built across countries and between individuals in order to achieve real progress.
Granted, I am not privy to the behind-closed-door meetings between countries, blocs, and negotiators. (That will have to wait until I’m the next Jonathan Pershing for the US.) But I have a feeling that's where the real action takes place, and the real policies are built. By contrast, the official COP and CMP bodies seem to operate through an outdated UN relic, which continues to grind through its routine of formalities without accomplishing anything at all. Madame President calls on Distinguished Delegates to speak, and Distinguished Delegates speak. Madame President thanks them for their contribution, and then declares an informal consultation to continue discussions. The daily regimen of “negotiations” is hardly groundbreaking stuff (though the occasional moments of feistiness or wit are entertaining).
Nevertheless, I encourage you to stay tuned. You can never know when sudden action will occur. In the meantime, I will continue attempting to make sense of this process and these proceedings.