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Climate Diary Climate Institutions COP (Conference of Parties)

Annual Climate COP (Conference of Parties) – Should I stay or should I go?

From Santiago to Madrid

It’s that time of the year again when people working in the climate change arena converge to meet at the annual Conference of Parties (COP) of the United Nations Climate Convention (the real official name is longer, but I translate into plain English for you). From the smallest island states to the largest industrialized nations, teams of climate change negotiators, scientists, activists, journalists and eager climate change tourists start planning their trips to Santiago de Chile. Wait a minute… Scratch that! Change your flight reservations and Airbnb bookings to Madrid de España instead. Yay, we are all going to Spain…

I was looking forward to meeting up some local buddies in Chile (I’ve never been). And I had already looked up historical sites for Valparaiso, the famed “Jewel of the Pacific”. The ongoing civil protests throughout Chile led the government to cancel the COP. It doesn’t look good to see on global television people getting beaten up. The COP tends to attract a fair amount of attention on the host country. Nothing to see here, move along.

Valparaiso, a great photo by Luis Alfonso Orellana on Unsplash
I was going to Chile for the Climate COP…

While some of my eminent colleagues will be sailing to the COP, I will most likely fly economy, also known as cattle class or fight club. See, I am an independent climate change consultant, working pro-bono for local non-government organizations and for cash for private sector firms. My clients are bean counters, and rightly so. They do not tolerate the luxury of business airfare as international organizations usually demand. As a climate change mercenary, I’m used to sleeping anywhere, anytime I can, as long as it’s safe. I don’t like sleeping on the floor, I use a hammock. Business class would be more comfortable but I can sleep through several helpings of airplane food without batting an eyelid 😴 .

For my friends and colleagues in developing countries, especially the poorest nations, it will be tough to get a Schengen visa in time for Spain. The Schengen visa is basically the European Union visa. If you’re from a middle income country like Malaysia, not a  problem, no visa needed, but if you’re from Zimbabwe or Cambodia, you just may not be able to get the visa in time for the annual climate change meetup. Processing times vary from embassy to embassy but it’s usually a matter of several weeks. So a last minute venue change from Chile to Madrid blows to smithereens carefully planned travel itineraries.

Madrid, A great photo by Jorge Fernández Salas on Unsplash
But it will be Madrid instead!

Celebrities at the COP

Sometimes, you can meet celebrities at the COP. I have a selfie with Governor Terminator Schwarzenegger. And also with Vice-President Al Gore in the background (I was unceremoniously shoved aside by a UN police officer). Yea, that UN cop was a gorilla shadowing Al Gore and he just bulldozed through a crowd of us, as if he was driving a school bus through brain eating zombies. This year, I was tempted to go get a selfie with Greta, but I’m sure she’s got some bodyguards as well. There’s an overabundance of security at COP. To protect the big shots, I guess, Presidents, Ministers, Secretaries of State, Under Secretaries of State, Head of Stuff and so forth.

Don’t expect Comic-Con San Diego. Some participants do wear their national costumes, and that does add a bit of color to the event. You’ll see plenty of suits (they’re not even worn by bankers or lawyers, just international organizations and government officials). It’s not really glam either. I haven’t seen Taylor Swift at a COP yet 🎸 .

Talks, side-events and amuse bouche

In theory, if you read the press, it’s at the COP that vital super important climate change decisions that will determine the future of the planet are made. The COP is the “supreme decision making body” of the United Nations Climate Convention. Every country in the world sends a delegation. That’s a lot of countries, and a lot of people that need to agree on immediate urgent climate action. Backroom dealings between countries don’t really take place at COP. It happens year round. I never really understood why the top 20 polluters couldn’t just talk it out. Everybody knows the respective positions of the US, Europe, Japan, China and India. I don’t expect them to come up with some last minute ground breaking proposals. The COP is just the formal meeting point. It takes years for countries to agree on anything. A few days in Santiago or Madrid won’t make much of a difference. The Non-Government Organizations (NGOs), the charities and environmental not for profits, also send their people, in the hope of putting some pressure on governments to act. Most governments of the world don’t get elected, so I don’t believe they care much about a few strongly worded speeches from grassroots organizations.

There’s a lot of talk at the COP. Plenary sessions with PowerPoint presentations, side events with PowerPoint presentations (and sometimes drinks and foods after the Powerpoints). With the jet lag, some participants doze off during the talks. You get indigestion of talks and PowerPoint slides. Rarely of food. There’s never enough food or drinks, and a lot of hungry bellies. I quite like the side events. I’ve had sushi, cerviche, amuse bouche, exotic cocktails and fine wines from across the globe at side events 🍹. That’s where people get to share what they did on the ground. Real stuff. It could be anything from breeding algae that absorb greenhouse gases to distributing flood emergency kits. You get also goodie bags with promotional materials and trinkets: stickers, flash drives, solar powered LED lights, t-shirts etc. There’s a real sense of camaraderie among the rank and file crowd, the unknown climate change foot soldiers and mercenaries, and you end up hanging out after hours with old friends and new acquaintances. There is also a nagging angst that little really gets done because you cannot hope to achieve consensus among the faceless member countries. COP after hours away from the suits are the best.

It’s like in the song. Should I stay or should I go? If I go there will be trouble. And if I stay it will be double. Don’t wait for the COP to do anything about climate change. It might, but it will take a very long time. Hope springs eternal. There’s always something you can do for our planet right now, just be the change yourself. 😋