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Adam C. Kotin:
A Tale of Two COP16s

Adam Kotin, a graduate student at the Center for Environmental Studies, moved freely between two very different worlds: the bureaucratic, well-equipped formal sessions and the garish, radical action on the street. Kotin is one of 10 Brown students in Cancun, attending the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change with J. Timmons Roberts, director of the Center for Environmental Studies and professor of sociology.
By Adam C. Kotin  |  December 8, 2010  |  Email to a friend

Police on street corners, machine guns pointed into traffic. Soldiers, dressed for combat, manning grenade launchers on Jeeps by the public sidewalk.

These are common sights here in Cancun, raising more than a few eyebrows among the foreign diplomats, reporters and NGO workers currently swarming the streets. It’s hard to tell if they’re here to protect us or to keep us in line.

We’ve noticed that the number of guns drastically increases whenever a protest action is about to occur. A couple days ago, barricades were erected in front of our hotel and rifle-toting cops installed at the entrance in anticipation of an anti-globalization protest which, as far as we know, never materialized.

An alternative reality: The Via Campesina march: Vastly more radical than anything ever proposed in the negotiating rooms, Via Campesina marchers demanded action now, with a conviction that would make most U.S. activists blush. An alternative reality: The Via Campesina march Vastly more radical than anything ever proposed in the negotiating rooms, Via Campesina marchers demanded action now, with a conviction that would make most U.S. activists blush. For someone whose work on climate change has been in activism, it’s a bit surreal to be the guy with the official badge now. I’m “on the inside” in this process, not the one yelling slogans and marching in the streets. Each day I wander the conference halls with all the bureaucrats, wondering if they, too, were activists before donning those suits and toeing the party line. Are they here to “make a difference” or is this just another day at the office?

Well, today we got a taste of what the real activism looks like when we headed downtown to cover the Via Campesina march, which served as a civil society alternative to COP16. We spent the morning with garishly dressed protestors and guys banging on drums as they chanted anti-capitalist, anti-globalization slogans. Many were anti-COP altogether. They held signs denouncing the REDD+ forest protection program, whose adoption is considered one of the few possible successes at this year’s conference. Their solutions to climate change were vastly different, vastly more radical than anything ever proposed in the negotiating rooms. They demanded action now, with a conviction that would make most U.S. activists blush. And they cared about what they were saying — cared enough to march down a Mexican highway in the hot sun toward beefy men with assault rifles and bulletproof vests.

Just after noon we left Via Campesina behind, flashing badges as we drove through police barricades on the way to the conference hall. The Cancunmesse convention center is a massive box warehouse with dull white walls and tastelessly exposed air conditioning ducts. It feels like Wal-Mart, except they’re shilling policy papers instead of plastic junk.

Taking a seat in our nicely furnished Bloggers’ Loft, complete with Ethernet cables and power strips, I wondered where I really belonged: out there with the marchers, spouting radical ideals and unrealistic demands, or in here, where all that fiery passion is reduced to paper-pushing, compromise, and the thought, “Well, there’s always next year.”