Sunday, December 23, 2007

Merry Dysfunctional Christmas

There are only two shopping days left until Christmas and I haven’t bought a single present yet.

I haven’t left my shopping until the last minute because I’m lazy. No, the reason I haven’t bought anything is because I was under the mistaken impression that my family had agreed to a gift-free Christmas this year.

Turns out my family abandoned its goal to de-commercialize Christmas and forgot to mention it to me. So now we’re having a typical Christmas with presents under the tree and I have two days left to fall in line.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. My sister Hilary sent out an email back in October suggesting that we take the money we would have spent on each other at Christmas and donate it to charity instead.

I thought it was a great idea and so did everyone else (I have four sisters, one brother and two parents and getting us to agree on anything is a pretty major accomplishment).

A gift-free Christmas was a no-brainer for me. I’d rather spend my time in Toronto bonding with friends and family than rushing through crowded stores buying crap that no one really wants or needs. Forgoing mindless consumerism in favour of giving to the less-fortunate seemed richer in meaning and closer to the true spirit of the season.

I should have known Buy Nothing Christmas was too good to be true. Things started to unravel in November. The first dissenter was my brother.

“I’m expecting gifts from you guys,” he wrote. “Forget this secular far-left nonsense.”

My sister Jane was the next one to crack.

“I like to give gifts at Christmas,” she wrote. “I am planning to give everyone gifts. There will be presents from me under the tree. Do as you like . . .”

I tried to get everyone back on board, sending out emails saying that this isolationist behaviour undermined the spirit of a gift-free Christmas. My mom and three of my sisters were with me. But my dad, my brother and my sister Jane were sticking to their guns and buying presents whether we wanted them or not.

The family was split. But at least four of us were still willing to forgo a traditional Christmas. Or so I thought.

I arrived in Toronto this weekend only to discover that everyone had caved and bought presents. My sister Hilary and I were the only ones who stuck to the original plan. Neither of us bought anything and now we don’t know what to do.

We don’t want to look like Scrooges but we don’t want to buy a lot of useless junk either. We’ve only got two days left to figure out how to make everyone happy on Christmas morning without resorting to store-bought gifts.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

A small glimpse of paradise

The problem with traveling for work is that you have to work.

There’s not a lot of time to explore the exotic location you’ve logged dozens of hours to get to. You’re not there for a vacation. You’re there to work.

Anyone who thinks traveling for work is glamourous and exciting obviously hasn’t flown economy class across the ocean sitting beside a screaming baby the entire way.

The only advantage to being on the road is that someone else makes your bed, cooks your food and cleans your bathroom.

Having spent two and a half weeks in Bali for work, I can tell you absolutely nothing about this pretty Indonesian island. Well, almost nothing. I could write the Lonely Planet guide to the Bali International Convention Centre (now that would be a riveting read).

Still, it would have been impossible not to absorb a little bit of the local culture. Like the way Bali smells, for example.

There’s a delicious fragrance that hangs in the air thanks to the flowering trees that dominate the landscape.

I wish I could describe how amazing these flowers smell. They’re not overpowering or sickly sweet. They just smell tropical and lush and clean.

The smell of burning incense adds to the olfactory orgasm. There are tiny shrines and offerings to the gods in every nook and cranny. Almost every offering has fresh flowers, bits of food and a stick of incense. Each one is a work of art.

The people are, for the most part, absolutely lovely. I got lots of smiles and hellos everywhere I went. The cab drivers went out of their way to chat with me and were especially interested in my non-existent love life.

Coming back to the hotel late at night meant I got to see lots of cute little geckos and frogs running around outside. (Although, I wasn’t quite as enamored with the cat-sized lizard waiting for me on the wall outside my hotel room.)

I was lucky enough to have three days of vacation after the conference ended and I spent most of my time with a couple of Canadian journalists who were also sticking around for a few days.

The three of us rented a car and got out into the beautiful, green countryside for a day.

Of course, I also saw the not-so-beautiful side of Bali. The conference centre was close to Kuta Beach, which is one of the ugliest, most congested, crowded, noisy hellholes I’ve ever seen. (Kuta was the site of the 2002 terrorist bombings.)

The place caters to cheap, boozing hordes of tourists. The streets are lined with sleazy nightclubs, fast food chains and car traffic so heavy it barely moves. The beach is packed with wall-to-wall tourists and aggressive touts looking to make a quick buck.

I felt like a walking dollar sign in Kuta. It was impossible to move two feet without someone offering their services for a massage or personal transport. Or without someone calling you over to buy cheap, mass-produced crap.

The southern part of Bali is not pedestrian friendly. The roads are heavily congested and the driving conditions are harrowing. Going for a walk means taking your life in your hands. The sidewalks (if there are sidewalks at all) are rarely wider than two feet across. Walking also means you have to contend with packs of hungry, barking dogs.

And if the traffic isn’t enough to drive you crazy, the mosquitoes surely will. There are lots and lots of mosquitoes in Bali (I am actually typing this with one hand and scratching with the other).

Anyway, this isn’t meant to encompass the island as a whole. I only saw a small part of Bali and I was there for work, not fun.

I could have stayed in Bali for a few weeks after the conference ended. But I cut my holidays short so that I could spend Christmas in Toronto. Yes, snow and slush won out over surf and sand.

Anatomy of a sunset

Having spent most of my time in Bali working, the one thing I wanted to do before I left was take in a proper sunset.

So on my last night in Bali, I staked out a spot on the beach and waited for the show to begin.

It started off slowly. As the sun began to set, the sky got a little darker. Kind of like the way the house lights dim before the curtain goes up.

Suddenly, the sky brightened and the clouds turned a dreamy, cotton-candy shade of pink. Everything took on a soft edge.

The pink slowly faded into a yellowy shade of orange before becoming more intense.

I felt like I had just watched a carefully orchestrated fireworks show. It was amazing. My photos don't do it justice.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Breakthrough in Bali

After long delays and all-night negotiations, political leaders at the UN climate conference in Bali finally hammered out a deal that will launch negotiations to put the world on a path towards deeper emission cuts after the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012.

It was a long, exhausting process that went 24 hours into overtime. But in the end, Canada and the U.S. bowed to pressure and agreed to stop blocking progress.

The final hours of the negotiations were extremely dramatic and often emotional. During one stalemate, a clearly frustrated and disappointed Yvo de Boer, the UN’s climate chief, broke down in tears and left the stage.

Talks were on the brink of falling apart after the U.S. stood firm in its position that a Bali road map must include a special exemption for weaker U.S. targets.

But a few hours later, after intense international pressure, the U.S. caved and agreed to move forward with the rest of the world. Everything was changing from one minute to the next.

Later in the afternoon, Canada stood alone with Russia in supporting an option for the Bali road map that ignored strong science. Country after country spoke out in favour of including the strong scientific language in the deal. Canada eventually backed down and changed its position so as not to block the overwhelming consensus.

Anyway, a deal was reached and the negotiations are over. That's really all that you need to know.

As for me, I've been up 40 hours straight and can barely think straight.

I think a celebratory drink at the beach-front bar in order. After that, I'm going to get a good night's sleep and enjoy three days of vacation in Bali. No email, no blogging and absolutely no climate change talk!


Right now, at this very moment, I am sitting in the middle of stalled negotiations at the UN climate conference in Bali.

It’s noon on Saturday. The negotiations were supposed to have wrapped up yesterday. I should have been relaxing on the beach by now. Instead, I’m holed up inside a conference room watching countries bicker over the fine print of a draft agreement.

The talks have been extended indefinitely. No one knows for sure when they will end. It could be over in a couple of hours. It could be over tomorrow. Or talks could break down completely and we’ll leave Bali without an agreement altogether.

You can thank Canada and the U.S. for the stalemate. They worked hard to water down the agreement and countries will now have to vote on whether or not they will accept a weaker deal (I’ve written about the negotiations on my Bali Blog so I won’t repeat myself here).

Things have been going from bad to worse. The talks keep starting and stopping. Twice this morning, the negotiations started only to be suspended moments later. Right now, absolutely nothing is happening.

The glacial pace of these UN negotiations is unbearably frustrating.

Anyway, I just wanted to vent since there’s not much else I can do right now.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Embarrassed to be Canadian

Almost every country at the UN climate conference in Bali is working hard to tackle climate change. As for Canada? Well, Canada is working hard to weasel out of taking action.

It’s embarrassing.

Let me give you a small example of Canada’s belligerent behaviour at these negotiations.

Last night, the federal government hosted an event to explain its climate change plan.

I decided to go because I was genuinely interested in hearing Environment Minister John Baird speak about Canada’s position (also, there was free food).

I sat down at the back of the room where Baird was hanging out.

At the front of the room, there were three industry representatives up on stage promoting their “clean” technologies. I felt like I had wandered onto the set of an infomercial.

This is strange, I thought to myself. What does this have to do with Canada’s position on climate change?

But I gave Baird the benefit of the doubt and assumed he was waiting for the last minute to take his seat up on stage. But a few minutes after the event started, Baird disappeared and never returned.

An hour later, the moderator announced that Baird wouldn’t be speaking at the event because he “had to go back to the negotiating group.”

At this point, most of the people sitting in the room stood up and left. I was one of them. I was annoyed that the federal government had wasted my time. It was a classic “bait and switch” scheme and I had been duped.

Canada’s bad behaviour isn’t going unnoticed. I had lunch with an Australian journalist today who said the event was a “complete con” and “totally outrageous.”

A Nigerian delegate joined our table. Upon learning I was Canadian, he said, “Aren’t you ashamed to show your face here?”

He started berating me until I waved my pass in his face and told him I was here with an environmental organization, not the federal government.

His tone softened.

“You’re okay,” he said. “But Canada isn’t.”

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.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Greetings from Bali

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.

The thing about negotiators is that they like to negotiate. Which explains why the agenda is filled with items like “Implications of the establishment of new hydrochlorofluorocarbon-22 (HCFC-22) facilities seeking to obtain certified emission reductions for the destruction of hydrofluorocarbon-23 (HFC-23).”


Anyway, all of this leaves me without a lot of time to update this blog, let alone go for a quick dip in the ocean (I've been here for a week and I haven't been in the water once!).

But if you're interested in what's going on at the climate talks in Bali, feel free to check out the Bali Blog I'm writing for the David Suzuki Foundation.