Eureka Moments at COPs Fr. Seán McDonagh SSC


This is my fifth time at the COPs – the Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNDFCC) and the Conference of the Parties of the Kyoto Protocol (KP). These meetings are always very exciting, but there are a number of things which make it difficult to follow what is going on. The first is the constant use of acronyms in both official and unofficial discussions and texts. One could listen to a ten minute conversation in English on the floor of the COP or in one of the many restaurants and not have an idea what was being discussed. It is like learning a new language. And the number of acronyms keeps increasing at each COP. It is like going back to language school for a refresher course to be told by your teacher that a lot more new words have appeared in the intervening year. The only place I could find a Glossary of Terms was at the stall of the International Petroleum Industry Environmental Conservation Association. I wouldn’t like one of my environmental friends to see me browsing at that particular stall. I would be seen to be supping with the Devil and would probably be immediately excommunicated from the environmental community!!

Keeping many balls in the air

The second difficulty is that there are so many different discussions taking place simultaneously. These focus around the topics such as the Common Vision, Mitigation, Clean technologies, Adaptation, Financial arrangements to mention just a few.  It is almost impossible to keep abreast of a single set of discussions and negotiations, not to mention them all.  To add to the complexity, the texts for negotiation have often more brackets than free texts. The bracketed texts have not been agreed on and, therefore, need to be negotiated. The negotiators have to bear in mind that a change in one set of texts may have implications for other texts. It can take an hour or longer to remove one or two of these brackets, so that text can move up along a supply line to officials at a higher level. Eventually, the Ministers will agree to accept or reject the wording.  New comers find this exacerbating. I was chatting with a delegate for Malawi on my way to the Cancun Messe on December 8th 2010. He is an agriculturalist by profession and therefore a practical man who likes to see things completed. He was finding the semantic tug-of-war between, for example, “will” and “shall” difficult to stomach, given the seriousness of climate change.

Inclusive processes are valuable, but not easy

One the positive side, an inclusive, multilateral negotiation process gives each  nation an equal voice, no matter how small in size, population or wealth. Furthermore, it is one of the few areas where bodies from the Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) can have an input into the discussions, especially during the first week. Many of these people have huge expertise so their contributions are very valuable. There are also stalls or booths where various Scientific and CSO groups share their research or work with anyone who is willing to drop by. Some of these groups are well known charities, or environmental organisations such as Greenpeace, Friend of The Earth, Caritas Internationalis or the Tyndall Institute.

One thing is certain at COP, there is an abundance of information. Some might say there is even too much. But without good information from the physical sciences on their currently understand of climate change, to how governments or charities are responding to it in the field, good decisions could not be made. Decisions based on bad data will exacerbate rather than solve a problem.  One day I attended a side event organised by the government of Pakistan on the devastating floods in August 2009.  I had followed this appalling tragedy in the media and also through contacts with Columban colleagues. Still, I got good first hand account of the floods which inundated one fifth of the country, destroyed tens of thousands of hectares of arable land and displaced 20 million people. Many of these are still living in makeshift shacks away from their homes.

Can Nation States deal with complex global problems?

This is the kind of background against which countries are trying to work out some way of reducing the release of greenhouse gases (GHG) into the atmosphere and also designing institutions to help and support people who are, even now, experiencing the effects of climate change. One of the major problems is that climate change is a global challenge, but the only instrument we have to address it is through negotiations between nation states – political structures which emerged in the 18th century, but are poorly designed to deal with global issues. Naturally, countries with similar profiles or interests often join together in negotiating blocks. The difficult is that they negotiate to protect their own national interest, instead of working from a perspective that climate change will affect everyone. Of course, the poor, who have done least to cause the problem, will suffer most.

In the midst of all of these swirl of meetings and frenetic activity I often find that a particular moment, happening or encounter gives me an  insight into what is happening which is different from what I glean from the considerable body of information available in books, pamphlets, website or DVDs.

My eureka moments

The word eureka comes from the Greek word eureka meaning, I have found something. Tradition has it that the famous Greek mathematician, Archimedes of Syracuse uttered these words when he discovered the principle of buoyancy which is called Archimedes Principle. At the Nairobi COP, my eureka moment came after attending a seminar on carbon markets which were being promoted as a way to get the private sector to engage in alleviating climate change.  Afterwards, one of the people who had been making the presentation for a global financial corporation, approached me and asked whether I had any money to invest, because I could make a killing on the carbon markets. The goal of reducing carbon emissions had somehow slipped out of view, to be replaced by another mechanism to make easy money.

Cancun is not sustainable

In Cancun, three things that struck me that put the negotiations in context. First of all Cancun is a resort city on the Gulf of Mexico. There is a lot of talk here about carbon sinks, especially forests. In 1974, before the World Bank began to fund the tourist development here at Cancun the area was forested with a number of small communities, fishing villages, mangroves forests and flourishing coral reefs. Fast forward 36 years and there are now 500 major hotels here and 80,000 hotel rooms.

The ecological cost has been horrendous. Iglesias-Prieto, a marine eco-physicist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Puerto Morelos, estimates that in the state of Quintana Roo which includes Cancun, mangrove forests are being lost at about 4% per annum. That means a loss of 150,000 hectares each year. With the mangroves removed the beaches are regularly devastated by storm surge each year. In 2009, Cancun spent $20 million shipping sand to refurbish their beaches.

The human cost of this tourist explosion may only be beginning.  In early November 2010, an explosion in one of the hotels killed five Canadians tourists and injured 20 more. Though the investigation into the cause of the accident has not been completed, many people are saying that it was probably as a result of gases released by decaying mangroves on which the hotel was hastily built. If this proves to be true, many more explosions can be expected in the near future. According to Barbara Bramble an adviser to the National Wildlife Federation in Washington DC, when the building boom began in Cancun in the mid-1980s, “mangroves covered all the coastal area. They have just been paved over. This is the star example of how not to build a mass tourist mecca. It is an ecological mistake that should never have happened.”[1]

There is a lot of talk at the negotiations about the vulnerability of low lying islands or coastal areas.  The Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), is making a very good case for immediate support because, in some cases they are already being negatively impacted by climate change. Even a one metre rise would endanger many of them.  But, I heard no one in Cancun saying that this tourist city will probably share that fate and become a ghostly submerged testimony to the ecological madness of a different era.

The second insight also focuses on Cancun.  On Monday I attended a series of lectures on Ethics and Climate Change. The venue was Hotel Riu Cancun.  I took a bus from Cancun Messe, where the CSO groups and stalls are located, down the coastal strip where all the hotels are built one after another. Many of the 500 hotels have familiar names such as Hyatt Regency Cancun, Holiday Inn Cancun and others in local ownership.  Some of the facades are pretty garish, but to be fair that’s probably a question of taste. However, everything which used in the hotels – from the food to the water – has to be brought in from outside.  On the way down I saw sprinklers dampening lawn after lawn, even though I am told that water is becoming a major problem because so much is been drawn from the lake and local aquifer.

I felt uncomfortable chilly in the room during the seminar because the air conditioner was turned up so high. I asked about it and was told that’s how the guests like it. So, from an ecological perspective the Cancun tourist strip is a disaster. Without huge amounts of fossil fuel it could not function at all.

But that is only part of the damage. Iglesias-Prieto points out that pollution from pig farms, golf course, new roads and the destruction of the mangroves is all seriously degrading the water quality.[2] Nearly all the human waste water is “deep injected” below the drinking water aquifer. This might have seemed to be a good idea 25 years ago, the problem now is that this waste water is seeping up through the rocks and making its way into the aquifer.  In terms of the vision or paradigm which the COP is attempting shape, Cancun and hundreds of others like it across the world are dinosaurs. By the way, I found the discussion at the Ethic Forum very stimulating.  Their key objective was how to get ethical language into the negotiation documents, which is one of the reasons I am here.

There is a growing consensus that the average global temperature should not be allow to rise above 1.5o C. This would involve reducing the current amount of CO2 in the atmosphere from 389 parts per mission (ppm), to something like 350ppm. Such a move would mean reducing carbon emissions by more than 30% for rich countries by 2020. This, in turn, would demand a much less affluent life style for the majority of people in Northern countries. The expectation of spending a week or so each year in a resort such as Cancun would not be on the cards. So, while participants here discuss different climate scenarios, no one is saying that, the low-carbon world we are striving to create will not be an affluent one.

Huge Ecological Footprint

I remember during the height of the Celtic Tiger in  Ireland,  there were numerous seminars in Dublin hotels encouraging ordinary people to buy a second home in Spain, Portugal, Latvia, Hungry and even as far away as Turkey or Thailand. People were told that the property was cheap, RyanAir will be flying into an airport close by, and the bank manager will advance the money.  We will not be able to enjoy that kind of lavish living in a post-carbon world, where the demands of equity will dictate that poor countries have a moral right to use their fair share of carbon in order to move people out of poverty.  I have never heard anyone at any COP say that, in low -carbon-based economy, affluence is doomed.  In fact one often hears the opposite, namely that a move to a green economy will promote economic growth and a new kind of affluence.

This is a new and strange kind of alchemy. If, as ecologists tell us, our ecological footprint at the moment is once-and-half what the planet can support with only 6.7 billion people, how will the planet cope with a population of 9 billion affluent people by 2050. As I walked back through the tourist city I was convinced that it, and many more similar tourist cities around the world, are facing extinction. There is also the social apartheid – most of the workers are Mexican, while the tourists are from the U.S., Canada, Japan and Brazil. But that discussion is for another day.

I have often been critical of the Holy See’s lack of engagement with ecological issues. A case in point is that the Holy See, while here in Cancun with observer status, is not issuing a statement, though one could be helpful in breaking the deadlock on a number of fronts. I am reliably informed that this decision was made in Rome, presumably by the Secretariat of State. If the meeting was on divorce, abortion, same-sex marriages, I am sure the Holy See would make a contribution.  Still, the Catholic Church is one of the few organisations which has understood what the lifestyle demands of a new sustainable world will be. In Peace with God the Creator, Peace with All Creation, the late Pope John Paull II wrote: “modern society will find no solution to the ecological problem unless it takes a serious look at its life style.  In many parts of the world society is given to instant gratification and consumerism while remaining indifferent to the damage which this causes ….Simplicity, moderation and discipline as well as a spirit of sacrifice, must become a part of everyday life, lest all suffer the negative consequences of the careless hubris of a few.”

Pope Benedict, in a document published on January 1st 2010, entitled, If You Want to Cultivate Peace, Protect Creation, repeats the same message. In No. 11 he writes, “it is becoming more and more evident that the issue of environmental degradation challenges us to examine our life-styles and the prevailing models of consumption and production, which are often unsustainable from a social, environmental and even economic point of view. We can no longer do without a real change of outlook which will result in new life-styles, “in which the quest for truth, beauty, goodness and communion with others for the sake of common growth are factors which determine consumer choices, savings and investment.”

The third eureka moment happened in a very different space. At both Cancun Messe and the Moon Palace there are meditation rooms.  I spend most of my time at this COP at Cancun Messe and have popped into the mediations room at least once each day.  During each of my visits I have not seen another person in the room. I remember after the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro talking to the Brazilian economist Marcos Arruda. Marcos felt that there would have been a much better outcome, if more philosophers and less economists and politician had been present at the meeting. At least philosophers, in style of Socrates, would ask the questions which everyone else fears and avoids.

There is no doubt in my mind that people here at Cancun, government parties, members of the CSO organisations and scientists are working very hard around the clock trying to tease out viable solutions to climate change. Their effort is huge and I salute them, however, one cannot help wondering whether it might be somewhat easier if they took 30 minutes a day to settle down and meditate.  Maybe some of the solutions might emerge from silence rather than a frenzy of activity.

There was another aspect of the meditation room which intrigued me. There were no chairs. It would appear that those who arranged the meditation room believed that meditation is primarily for the Asian religious traditions, where  people can squat in lotus-like postures on the ground for long periods of time.  Almost 30 years ago, I spent six weeks in an Ashram in Southern India and had no problem sitting on the ground as I had been used to that position during the Eucharist at the small chapel in Mindanao State University in Marawi City were I was assigned at the time.  But time has taken its toll on my lower back and hips which means even the half –lotus position is no longer possible. Now any meditating I do is sitting upright in a chair. So, I felt discriminated again by those who organised the mediation room.  Yes, in terms of ideas, it is very good one, but in terms of getting it right for every potential user, I would reluctantly have to fail them. Maybe this is a metaphor for the whole COP.

As I write on Thursday morning, December 9th 2010, the mood here at Cancun has changed from quiet optimism to brooding pessimism, given the slow progress of the negotiations. The Japanese have come under huge pressure to soften their stand on a second Kyoto commitment period, but they are sticking to their guns. Many feel that with only two days left for the negotiations, little will be achieve. Most difficult issues will be kicked to touch to be decided in South Africa in 2011. But COPs have a bad habit of kicking to touch, but never throwing the ball back in again to resume play.

Some are hoping that there might be an agreement on issues such as REDDs so that, at least, there is some tangible result from all the work and effort here at Cancun.


[1] www.




[2] Ibid


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s