Riding the bus

On my bus ride to the COP 16 press conferences this morning, I sat next to a delegate from Senegal. We exchanged the usual pleasantries—Who are you with? Where are you from? How are things going for you in Cancun?—and then got down to the business of talking about COP 16.

“Will President Obama come, do you think?” he asked me. “No,” I said. “I don’t think he’s planning on that.”

My answer was based on a conversation with an American who works for an NGO in the US a few days earlier. “What’s he going to do?” he asked me, laughing when I said I thought that at the very least it would be a nice gesture to the Mexican presidency.

“What’s he going to do? Say ‘Hey guys! What’s in this door?” (He was referring, by the way, to last year’s meetings at Copenhagen, when Obama walked into a private meeting of China, India, Brazil, and South Africa.)

At any rate, the gentleman from Senegal and I spent the rest of the bus ride talking about what’s happening on the ground in Senegal (rising temperatures, increasingly long episodes of drought) and what Senegal was hoping for from COP 16 (perhaps some progress on adaptation.)

Despite the fact that everyone who knows anything about the climate change negotiations knows that the United States has been holding up progress for almost 20 years now, many people don’t acknowledge that fact in polite company. As an aside, the US certainly doesn’t acknowledge reality during its press conferences.

Last Friday, I listened to Todd Stern, the United States Special Envoy for Climate Change, say things like: The key here in Cancun—the watchword—is balance, genuine balance….Balance, in my judgment is the key to unlock the door to a strong set of decisions here in Cancun followed by a ramped-up Fast Track [Climate Finance] process in 2011 that will lead to elaboration and a fully operational set of decisions that could be done next year in South Africa….I think we can get there as long as countries do not seek to become stumbling blocks, to slow down progress.

In the final moments of the bus ride—it's a long one—I brought up my home country’s actions. He nodded. “Yes, yes.”

We spoke a bit more about the United States and the excuses we have used to avoid taking action on climate change. One of the things people in other countries keep hearing—and believing—is that US inaction is a matter of politics. Now, it’s true that Republicans by and large are awful on the issue of climate change.

But let’s face it: The Democrats didn’t support climate change legislation either. Not to the extent to make it a reality. And really? Action on something like climate change—when the science is clear, the impacts are likely to be severe and the the actions beneficial also in terms of public health and the environment—shouldn’t have anything at all to do with politics. Am I wrong to think that? Back home, we argue about politics (Although I won’t argue anymore.

Talk to the hand unless you’re talking about campaign finance reform.) Many also think of climate change as an abstraction or something that’s open to debate or worth thinking about perhaps in the future. But for many of the people I’ve met in recent months—from the Solomon Islands, Maldives, Africa, Nepal, and even places such as Columbia and China—climate change is real. It’s happening. And the United States is actively ensuring that nothing happens to confront that reality.

As we were getting off the bus, I wanted to say something to this gentleman. But quite honestly, I don’t know what I might have said, save for goodbye and good luck.

This blog post first appeared on SouthwestReporter.com

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