Tuesday, December 11, 2007

A typical day at the UN climate conference

You may be wondering what it’s like to be an observer at the UN climate conference in Bali. I’m here to tell you that it’s not all sunshine, beachside blogging and pina coladas at the swim-up bar.

Nope. It’s mostly just meetings, meetings and more meetings. It never fails to amaze me how something so critically important can also be so tediously boring.

But then there are moments when it’s so fast-paced and exciting that you find yourself thinking how amazing it is, and how privileged you are, to have a front-row seat to history.

Let me take you through a typical day.

An early wake-up call is in order as my hotel is a 40-minute drive away from the conference venue in Nusa Dua. For those of you unfamiliar with Bali, Nusa Dua is a gated compound filled with massive five-star resorts. It’s kind of like Las Vegas without the lights.

It’s also exorbitantly expensive so I’m staying outside the Nusa Dua enclave where rates are much more reasonable. It’s a hassle being so far away but at least the UN has provided a fleet of shuttle buses to get us from the hotel to the conference centre every morning.

My favourite part of the commute is watching the hordes of motorcycles weave in and out of traffic. I watch with a mixture of horror and awe as women zip along the congested streets with one hand cradling a baby and the other hand holding the motorcycle’s handle bar.

After fighting through heavy traffic, and gawking at the daredevil antics of the motorcyclists, we arrive in Nusa Dua 40 minutes later. All cars entering the conference area must pass through a security checkpoint. Cameras scan the underbody of each vehicle while police officers search the trunks.

The bus drops us off outside the conference centre, which is patrolled by hundreds of police officers armed with machine guns. The big guns are intimidating but I’ve never met a friendlier and more laidback bunch of police officers. They’re always smiling and waving hello. They also spend a lot of time napping on the beach.

At the next security checkpoint, our bags are searched by hand and then put through an X-ray machine. UN officials scan the ID passes around our necks and make sure the face that pops up on the computer screen matches the face of the person standing in front of them.

Having made it past security, my first order of business is a morning meeting with representatives from several Canadian environmental groups. But it’s a 20-minute walk from the conference centre to the hotel where the non-governmental meeting rooms are located.

You can’t walk two feet outside the conference centre without being honked at by an enterprising taxi driver calling out “Transport? Transport?”

It’s blazing hot in Bali and most delegates are happy to jump into an air-conditioned cab but I prefer to walk, even if it means arriving at a meeting drenched in sweat (15-hour workdays leave little time for exercise).

There are free bikes for delegates to use but I haven’t taken one for a spin yet. I haven’t quite mastered the art of riding a bike while wearing a skirt.

At our morning meeting, we discuss the previous day’s events, new developments, media coverage from Canada and what’s on the agenda for the day. We brainstorm about the best way to get our message out that day. Should we write a press release? Or just drop by the media tent to chat with the journalists?

Once the morning meeting is over, it’s time to hike back to the conference centre to take in a press conference or two. Today there were 21 different press conferences to choose from. I'm less interested in the content of the press conference and more interested in the questions the journalists are asking. It's a good way to find out what's generating a buzz in Bali.

Then it’s time to check email, scan the media stories and sit in on the negotiations. My cell phone rings incessantly. Journalists call to set up interviews or look for a scoop. My colleagues call to go over the draft of a news release or to discuss something contentious on (or off) the agenda.

My stomach growls, and I realize I’ve forgotten to eat lunch. I quickly grab a bite to eat from one of the food stalls set up around the conference centre. The food isn’t very good but there aren’t many options. There’s no time to go into town and not enough money to eat at any of the nearby resorts (five-star hotels also have five-star prices).

So I settle for a sandwich inside the conference centre. There’s no local food on the menu but there are chocolate croissants and lattes.

After wolfing down lunch, it’s time to run out for a meeting with about 200 people from non-governmental organizations from around the world. We meet every afternoon to report back on the key issues and developments at the negotiations.

Two of my Suzuki Foundation coworkers, Mark Lutes and Dale Marshall, are also here in Bali. Mark and Dale are the brains of the operation and are able to follow the often confusing and extremely technical negotiations with a level of detail that goes right over my head.

They tell me what’s going on and I try to figure out what’s newsworthy and what’s not. I try to write about the negotiations in a way that’s clear, compelling and understandable (it’s not as easy as it sounds).

In the evening, there are a variety of side events to choose from. Today is the 10th anniversary of the Kyoto Protocol so there are a few poolside parties planned. I’ll probably stop by the UN party for a glass of wine and some free food. But I can’t stay long.

At 8 p.m. tonight, the federal government will host an event to talk about its climate change plan. It should be interesting. Environment Minister John Baird is expected to be the star of the show (and I don’t mean that in a good way).

If I’m lucky, my workday will finish by 10 p.m. I’ll crash into bed completely exhausted only to wake up a few hours later and do it all over again.

And there you have it. Just a typical day at the UN climate conference.

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