World Plenary Talks Rumble and Stumble to Completion

Climate Conference Update, On to Paris

Closing session of the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action, part of the UN climate talks in Lima, Peru.

We are at the end of a marathon. Some runners are carrying on with a determined look in their eye; others are on the verge of collapse. Sitting in the plenary in the middle of the night at the Conference of the Parties (COP), as civil society members, it’s painful to look out from haze of exhaustion at the negotiators, who are sprinting toward the finish, tripping each other along the way. We wait for them to beat each other to an agreement.

For countries like the U.S., which has an official delegation that numbers in the hundreds, this stage of the marathon is a breeze — they can switch out their negotiators at ease, staying sharp and on their game, coming up with ways to stealthily negotiate for the treaty they want to see. For developing and least developed countries, which have two to five negotiators, the exhaustion has caught up, and they are barely holding their ground. We hold our breath, waiting for them to inadvertently agree to a decision that means game over for their people.

COP20 is significant in that it was supposed to pave the way for next year’s Paris meeting, where the world’s states will agree upon an international climate treaty. COP20 was supposed to lay out the roadmap for countries to provide financing for vulnerable countries’ losses and damages. COP20 was supposed to knock down barriers and find common ground on which to build a mitigation, adaptation, and loss and damage strategy.

But that’s not what has happened. To begin with, the climate negotiations are anything but earnest. On Thursday, a draft text for the ADP — short for Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action, the working group determining pre- and post-2020 country commitments — was accidentally released. The Umbrella group, comprising all developed countries except for the EU, had slashed or watered down many of the additions made by many developing countries. The text focused solely on mitigation and ignored adaptation and loss-and-damage finance that is desperately needed by vulnerable countries. Australia also announced that it was not interested in even ratifying the treaty that will come out of Paris.

As the cherry on the cake, this year’s COP again failed to adequately represent the needs of those who will be the most impacted by climate change — women, youth, the Global South, and minorities. Instead, COP became a silver-coated stage of tokenized gestures without managing to uplift the voices of those individuals.

Negotiations on the draft text went late into Friday night and through Saturday. On Friday evening, countries convened and civil society looked on as the first draft of the text was picked apart; countries went one by one, listing the parts of the text they could accept and where their red lines were. After hours of negotiations, the chairs decided to redraft a text, promising it would be ready by 7 p.m. At 2 a.m. Saturday morning, negotiators trickled back in to be handed a revised text and were given 30 minutes to decide whether to agree to the text or block it. Scanning through a text that was heavily weighted toward mitigation — and barely touched on adaptation and loss and damage — countries demanded more time to review the text. Eight hours later, they reconvened to discuss the text, only to find themselves still unable to agree. Senegal referred to the text as “unbalanced and unjust,” saying that without consensus and with weak language, the text would likely fail to bring us to a successful Paris decision.

The session reconvened for the last time Saturday night, and finally they reached consensus on a text in which all binding agreements and all references to finance from developed countries had been removed.

In the finance realm, the wealthy countries proved to have woefully inept or nonexistent roadmaps for how they will provide climate justice financing to help pay for the adaptation measures needed and loss and damages experienced by vulnerable communities. The only silver lining, however, was the $10 billion pledge to the Green Climate Fund — to provide financial support for adaptation and development to developing and vulnerable communities — a thin glimmer in light of the $100 billion that is supposed to be available annually by 2020 or the $500 billion to $1 trillion that match the more realistic estimates of the global need for finance by then.

A successful outcome in Paris would be a binding global treaty that commits countries not only to ambitious mitigation but also to adaptation plans and pledges for loss and damage. To achieve such a treaty, however, we cannot rely on the COP negotiators and their governments. The public was not surprised by the Lima outcome; in the absence of strong domestic pressure, the COP will not suddenly produce the ambition that it’s failed to show for the past 20 years. Serious work needs to be done at the national level. If we want to see mitigation pushed in Paris, we need to make progress at home on our own mitigation efforts. If we want to see the Umbrella Group push adaptation and finance, we need to push those governments — including the United States — domestically.

This very week, the House of Representatives approved an omnibus spending package that plans to stop Obama’s $3 billion pledge to the Green Climate Fund. To get an ambitious text in Paris, there will need to be a significant domestic shift, especially for the Umbrella Group countries. That kind of shift means bolstering our movement here in the United States, and fast. The global climate justice movement must learn to lift up the voices that have been traditionally oppressed and the voices that already experience the most harm from both climate change and the fossil fuel industry. A movement does not necessarily create the solutions, but a movement paves the way for solutions to be heard.

The United States will announce its INDC (Intended Nationally Determined Contributions) in March 2015, giving us a glimpse of its ambition for Paris. If the U.S. public could increase the ambition of the U.S. INDC, it would set the stage for a successful COP in Paris. Action starts at home. The difference between a 2°C and a 4°C warmer world starts at home. That’s the difference between a livable world and a world of pain.


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