Foreign Minister Julie Bishop at climate talks in Lima

The current conference of parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is a bubble within a compound within a world cut off from its surrounds. Each day delegates are bussed in large numbers to and from their hotels across town. From this vantage point they can comfortably observe the mayhem of gridlocked Lima roads. Inside the bus is the complex language of UN negotiations and draft texts.

In the first week, conference delegates were treated to an elaborate welcome party put on by the UN in one of Lima’s main parks. An elaborate light show, Peruvian dancers and performers were all on display for delegates, along with freely flowing alcohol and food.

Whether such an environment can foster what is necessary to reach a new global climate agreement in Paris next year is one of the big questions of this week. As is usual at these meetings, the pace has been that of one of the massive glaciers up in the Peruvian Andes. But even those glaciers are now melting quicker than the speed of the UN negotiations.

And as the days have gone by and meetings lengthened, the draft texts on which the delegates have been working on line by line, word by word, have been getting longer as the number of possible options on the table increase.

The site of the UNFCCC meeting in Lima is a tent city in a compound in the General Headquarters of the Army, guarded by a large number of police and soldiers. At its heart is a huge concrete monolith — “Pentagonito”, or Little Pentagon — a reminder of Peru’s past military dictatorship.

Around the outside of the compound is a running track on which wealthy Peruvians can be seen running laps, stopping occasionally to stretch and flex — just like you would see at Centennial Park in Sydney or Central Park in New York. This running track sits within the wealthy Lima suburb of San Borja.

Peru is a well-off Latin American country with a well-performing economy, with poverty having fallen from over 50% to around 23% in the last 10 years. But there is little to remind conference delegates that there are still large parts of the country that are very different from the surrounds of the conference. Even a drive to Peru’s international icon Machu Picchu takes tourists through areas much less glamorous than San Borja.

Environmental groups — known euphemistically as Civil Society — wanted to make Typhoon Hagupit, set to hit the Philippines, a focal point for their efforts at this year’s meeting in an attempt to concentrate delegates’ minds on the pressing issue at hand.

It is something of a repeat of last year’s meeting in Warsaw, which occurred weeks after typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines killing 6340. Outraged by what they saw as the other delegates’ indifference and lack of action, a number of the delegates of the Philippines delegation went on hunger strike.

As one Australian observer remarked, NGOs can be important in focusing delegates’ minds on the issue at hand — and pushing the boundaries of what can be achieved. But this year environmental and human rights groups’ obsession with the impending typhoon has bordered on disaster fetishism. In the days leading up to the landfall of the typhoon, there has been something of a histrionic countdown to disaster. Every pronouncement, every media release, every press conference is prefaced with the calamities about to befall the Philippines.

This week at one press conference, Greenpeace showed an emotive video featuring its CEO Kumi Naidoo, who diverted his trip to Lima to review the preparations in the Philippines for the hurricane.

“I would like to make an appeal to our brothers and sisters in Lima,“ Naidoo said. “We are losing time and running out of time and people are hurting now.”

Such extreme weather events are predicted to become more frequent in the future. But it is questionable whether such a strategy of relentless climate crisis campaigning based on disasters that are nonetheless natural weather events is productive.

The one-dimensional campaign strategy was best typified by the chants of protesters against a speech on Monday by English economist Lord Nicholas Stern, who was speaking at an industry-sponsored side event.

“Leave the oil in the soil. Coal in the hole,” chanted protesters.

The outcome of the Lima talks is unlikely to be sufficient to deal with the challenge of climate change — but then, rhyming slogans from environmental groups won’t either.

Peter Fray

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