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A couple of days before the UNFCCC negotiations begin

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28 Nov 2010
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The Yucatan Peninsula juts like a green thumb out into the Caribbean, its flat expanse bisected by roads and quarries to extract the materials that have gone into building the sprawling resorts that line its coast. You can also see the ancient Mayan city of Cichen Itza rising above the green canopy. Important Mayan sites such as Tulum are found along the coast and inland. There is no single accepted theory about why Mayan society collapsed suddenly in the 10th Century but there is evidence that the population exceeded the carrying capacity of the land. Foreign invasions, epidemics and climate change are all offered as possible reasons, singly or in combination.

Photo by John Crump

“Welcome to Paradise” trumpets a large sign at the edge of Highway 307, the four-line route that runs the length of the peninsula. Thirty years ago, this was a quiet place without the massive resort complexes that now dominate.

The Yucutan is also the site of a massive asteroid impact that is thought to have ended the Cretaceous period and led to the extinction of the dinosaurs, along with 80% of biodiversity on the planet at that time. More recently – 120,000 years ago during an interglacial period – the sea level was seven metres higher here than it is today. The contrast between these histories – planetary cataclysms, coastal inundation and the demise of one of the sophisticated Mayan society and its massive architectural, artistic and mathematical accomplishments provides an interesting backdrop for this year’s climate change negotiations.

A couple of days before the UNFCCC negotiations begin, it is hard to tell the delegates from the tourists. The Mexican government has called up the federal police, the army and the marines to guard the main venues for the climate talks. Soldiers stand on the back of trucks hanging onto heavy calibre machine guns. Police tote automatic rifles everywhere. Check points line the highway. The hotel where I’m staying has a little note to guests, in English and Spanish, advising them about the extra security and “not to worry”. Tourists landing in the midst of another UNFCCC negotiation must wonder why they booked this time for a vacation.

Cancunmesse is a sprawling trade centre along the highway between Cancun and Playa del Carmen. It was nearly deserted on Saturday evening as I joined a small group of delegates and headed out by bus to get credentials. The Mexican government has hired hundreds, probably thousands, of people to work in all aspects of the conference – they guide you off the bus, through security, into the huge room where identification badges are handed out. Last year in Copenhagen, the press of the crowd in the small registration area illustrated right from the outset that there were going to be too many people for the facility. This year the UNFCCC Secretariat and Mexican government have worked to control the number of registrations to avoid the sense of things spinning out of control at the outset.

On Saturday, there was no problem getting a badge. I walked right up to the front, joked with the pleasant man handling my file about whether I needed a new photo or not (I had one taken by the eyeball of a camera on the counter), ducked into the building where all the displays and side events, presentations and other activities will take place, and then jumped back on the bus. In the dark ride back down the highway I thought of two things: first, how quick and painless registration had been; second, how much time I will be spending in this bus in the coming days.

There is no walking between venues and if you want to follow the negotiations at the Moon Palace and then head over for a side event at the Cancunmesse, you will need to give yourself time. Especially since by Sunday morning it was taking an hour and a half to get between the two locations.

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