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Talanoa and communication space at COP23

[This post is part of a series offered by IECA members attending COP23 Fiji in Bonn.]

One of the most remarkable innovations at COP23 Fiji has been its Talanoa Space in the Bonn zone. It features a huge wall of green foliage and red, white and pink flowers, a vibrant shock of tropical colour amid the cool white tones that permeate the spaces of COP. Speakers are seated in rotund wicker chairs, facing a tiered amphitheatre dotted with floor mats where audience members can comfortably sit cross-legged. The Talanoa Space includes smaller intimate spaces with more relaxed seating, where the occasional musician might start strumming a guitar amid the passing crowd of badge-wearing delegates.

Talanoa means conversation among South Pacific Islanders, and delegates from the Small Island Developing States (SIDS) are highly visible and vocal at these talks, many dashing from the official negotiation space of the Bula zone to the more convivial “civil society” Bonn zone in a show of Pacific solidarity. Local participation and capacity building have been earnestly raised at these talks. Delegates frequently lament the disconnect between the internal world of COP and the local populations that experience climate change. World leaders and civil society actors at COP23 have repeatedly called for transparency, inclusion and the breaking down of silos to improve communication and take decisive action on climate change, and they are walking to talk, literally.

The sheer effort to access spaces of communication at COP23 is a source of frustration frequently heard in the Bonn zone. Walking has become a portentous undertaking.

COP23 delegates are walking a lot, perforce taking in the rolling green beauty of Rheinaue park in Beethoven’s birthplace as they walk, cycle, or ride shuttles across the 1.2 KM distance separating the Bula and Bonn zones. There is something whimsical about seeing smartly dressed negotiators, knees high above their immaculate shoes, navigating the damp pathways of Rheinaue park with their pink badges fluttering in the breeze of their own efforts. Raw muscle beats the closeness of tired bodies pressed into the low-emission shuttles that chug diligently between the two zones.

Traversing the zones takes time, with many delegates pondering the opportunity cost of repeat trips. There are wisps of critique in the many good-natured remarks about delegates always being late for meetings as they shuttle between the Bula and Bonn zones. This structuring of space is in response to the logistical challenges of hosting the estimated 30,000 delegates, roughly equivalent to 10 per cent of the population of Bonn. That pastoral 1.2 KM stretch – demarcated by security checkpoints at either end – is a signal feature of the “One Conference, Two Zones” concept this year. “This approach,” states the conference website, “focuses on a close integration of the zones to ensure that negotiations, events and exhibits are integrated into one conference.” The concept marks a discursive and spatial shift from the Blue and Green zones of previous years, when all accredited delegates had access to the Blue zone and the general public could participate in climate change events in the Green zone. This year, the public has no access to either zone (save for select interested Bonn residents who secured a badge beforehand), though there are various climate change installations and off-site events between and around the official COP23 spaces.

Delegates are walking hard, arguably none more so than the Pacific SIDS delegates speaking frequently at side events in the Bonn zone to drum up support among the civil society actors housed there. They say that the urgent threat to their islands and the climate-induced migrations already occurring should have been on the agenda of COP23. While that conversation is occurring in the Bonn zone, it needs to reach a wider space, asserted the Tuvalu Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga: “It cannot exist outside the intergovernmental process.” COP would be more transparent if civil society and observers were included in the closed sessions, said climate justice champion and former Irish president Mary Robinson. Yet many sessions are closed, and even the open sessions require a time-consuming effort to dash between the two zones of this one conference. The two-zone space is not ideally conducive to civil society engagement.

The structuring of communication space is about control, and can evolve into spatial segregation and marginalization, limiting access to participation in environmental decision-making. It is evident at COP23, notwithstanding official efforts to integrate governmental space with civil society space. The Bula zone is the formal space of official negotiations, and generally not frequented by observer delegations. The Bonn zone is the space where the exhibition booths, country pavilions, and most of the side events take place. Meanwhile, effective communication of climate change with the general public is open to question when there is no one space dedicated for them.

For Talanoa about climate change, space matters.

About the Author: 

Chui-Ling Tam teaches in the Department of Geography at the University of Calgary, Canada.

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