Keeping it real: UN climate talks struggle to stay relevant

November 18, 2017 by Marlowe Hood
In addition to being out of sync with the urgency of the crisis, the UN climate negotiations are also falling behind the respons
In addition to being out of sync with the urgency of the crisis, the UN climate negotiations are also falling behind the response of cities, sub-national regions and especially businesses

There was a telling moment at the 23rd edition of UN climate talks that underscored both the life-and-death stakes in the fight against global warming, and how hard it is for this belaboured forum to rise to the challenge.

Twelve-year-old Timoci Naulusala from Fiji, a nation disappearing under rising seas, was delivering a testimonial to ministers and heads of state with crisp English and irresistible charm.

Suddenly, describing the devastation wrought by Cyclone Winston last year, his words became measured, his voice hushed.

"My home, my school –- my source of food, water, money -– was totally destroyed," he said.

"My life was in chaos. I asked myself: Why is this happening? What am I going to do?"

The answer to Timoci's first question has become frightening clear: change.

With only a single degree Celsius of global warming so far, the planet has already seen a crescendo of deadly droughts, heatwaves, and superstorms engorged by rising seas.

"Climate change is here. It is dangerous. And it is about to get much worse," said Johan Rockstroem, executive director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, a climate change research centre.

The 196-nation Paris Agreement, adopted in 2015, enjoins the world to cap the rise in temperature at "well below" 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), a goal barely within reach that still may not save Fiji and dozens of small island states.

'Climate change is here. It is dangerous. And it is about to get much worse,' said Johan Rockstroem, executive director of the S
'Climate change is here. It is dangerous. And it is about to get much worse,' said Johan Rockstroem, executive director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, a climate change research centre

Bangladesh and other countries with highly-populated delta regions are also at high risk.

But Timoci's second question remains open: What is he, and by extension the world, going to do?

'Should' or 'Shall'

At first, the answer—laid out in the 1992 UN Convention on Climate Change—seemed straight-forward: humans must stop loading the atmosphere with the greenhouse gases that drive global warming.

The successful repair of the ozone hole suggested a way forward: an international treaty.

But it took a quarter of a century to get one, in 2015, and even then it is woefully inadequate: voluntary national pledges to curb carbon pollution would still allow the global thermometer to go up 3 C, a recipe for human misery on a vast scale.

Since Paris, the UN climate talks—known to participants as "COPs", or Conferences of the Parties—have focused on working out an operational handbook for the treaty, which goes into effect in 2020.

Twelve-year-old Timoci Naulusala from Fiji, a nation disappearing under rising seas, delivered a testimonial to ministers and he
Twelve-year-old Timoci Naulusala from Fiji, a nation disappearing under rising seas, delivered a testimonial to ministers and heads of state

But as the years tick by, the byzantine bureaucracy—where hundreds of diplomats can argue for days over whether a text will say "should" or "shall"—has struggled to keep pace with both the problem, and what some negotiators call "the real world".

"What is at stake here is the relevance of the COP process," said Nicaragua's chief negotiator Paul Oquist, lamenting a point of blockage and the generally slow pace.

"We cannot risk becoming more and more irrelevant with each meeting."

The UN climate process risks falling out of step in two key ways, experts suggest.

One is in relation to the unforgiving conclusions of science, which show that the window of opportunity for avoiding climate cataclysm is rapidly narrowing to a slit.

This year's climate talks kicked off with negotiators learning that CO2 emissions—after remaining stable for three years, raising hopes that they had peaked—will rise by two percent in 2017, a development one scientist called "a giant step backwards for humankind".

Negotiations were also reeling from US President Donald Trump's decision to pull out from the Paris Agreement. America sent envoys to the meetings but White House officials and energy company executives hosted a pro-fossil fuel event on the conference margins.

Cyclone Winston wreaked devastation in Fiji when it battered the low-lying Pacific island nation in 2016
Cyclone Winston wreaked devastation in Fiji when it battered the low-lying Pacific island nation in 2016

Meanwhile, scientists warned of invisible temperature thresholds—"tipping points"—beyond which ice sheets would irretrievably shed enough water to raise global oceans by metres.

"The only question is how fast," James Hansen, head of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies until 2013, told AFP.

'Little adrenaline'

The UN's 12-day negotiations came to an end Saturday with an agreement to hold a stocktake in 2018 of national efforts to cut fossil fuel emissions.

But the talks are falling behind the response of cities, sub-national regions and especially businesses, which have leaped headlong into the transition from a dirty to a clean global economy.

"For the first time in the history of the COPs, the heart of the action was not in the negotiating arena but in the 'green' zone" showcasing innovations in sustainable development, said David Levai, head of the climate program at the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations in Paris.

Some 7,500 cities and local governments have set carbon cutting targets, and hundreds of global companies are retooling for a low-carbon world.

White House officials and energy company executives hosted a pro-fossil fuel event on the conference margins
White House officials and energy company executives hosted a pro-fossil fuel event on the conference margins

A veteran EU climate diplomat, meanwhile, bemoaned the lack of dynamism in the negotiating arena. "I've never seen a COP with so little adrenaline," he told AFP.

Mads Randboll Wolff, a Danish expert in bioeconomics—a field that didn't even exist a decade ago—recalled the bitter disappointment of the failed Copenhagen climate summit in 2009.

"The entire world was looking up to the podium, waiting for world leaders to strike the deal that would save us," he said.

"One of the lessons from Copenhagen is that the negotiations are not enough," he added. "We need them. But we also need civil society—people, citizens—to take action."

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julianpenrod
1 / 5 (1) Nov 18, 2017
Again, it's a misnomer to call this "climate change".
The "climate" is not changing.
"Climate" is the overall interacting, self regulating system of things like land, air, oceans, solar radiation, life. Only the air temperature is changing. The land is not changing, the oceans are the same as before, and the same with solar radiation and life. In "climate change", if one facet changed, the rest would not follow. If the air became clear again, things would soon return to where they were fifty or so years ago. Only the air is changing, and that is being caused by chemtrails, the government project of doping the air with weather modification chemicals from high flying jets, producing long, non dissipating vapor lanes in the sky that stretch from horizon to horizon and can last for hours.
Steve_S2
3 / 5 (2) Nov 18, 2017
" America sent envoys to the meetings but White House officials and energy company executives hosted a pro-fossil fuel event on the conference margins. " You know, I have talked to a few people about this and they feel the same about it.... We feel that was no different than sending the KKK Leader in full garb to South Africa to promote equality. What was Team Trump Thinking ? Well, obviously not thinking but seriously, what an absolutely idiotic thing to do and such profile...

Ladies & Gentlemen of Earth. Please understand that we are now in the GREATEST OF ALL WARS, it is akin to World War 3 but without guns & bombs (yet). We are fighting for the survival of all remaining species on this planet, including the apparently underserving humans. The house IS on fire and some politico's are still debating what fire is and if it is harmful. Time to stop the nonsense and get working lest we suffer the fate we so deserve if we don't.
julianpenrod
1 / 5 (2) Nov 18, 2017
Using a misnomer as determinedly as they do indicates this is not really "climate change". They wish to inculcate the sense that all the environment is changing on its own, land is somehow exacerbating the change in the atmosphere, the nature of life is affecting the oceans. They fixate only on the air, seeking only to change the claimed levels of carbon dioxide. They won't even mention the fact that other factors in the environment are not changing independently. They are deliberately trying to avoid saying that only the condition of the air is changing. But that is not the "climate". They won't adopt terminology like "atmosphere alteration" which this is. And that's because they don't want issues like chemtrails, which is aimed at altering the atmosphere, to be discussed.
PTTG
not rated yet Nov 18, 2017
I really wish there was a way to get psychological help for Julian.
Steve_S2
not rated yet Nov 18, 2017
He is a symptom of the larger issue at hand.... Many need help and more need to start accepting consequences, taking responsibility and others need to be held accountable... ALL of which no longer seems acceptable in the 21st Century... Indeed the world we knew ended 12/31/1999 just wasn't what some expected.
leetennant
5 / 5 (1) Nov 18, 2017
The climate is changing. The idea that air temperatures could change without accompanying changes in the overall system is laughable.

At its core, your argument boils down to "something is definitely happening but [insert weird conspiracy theory here]". The thing is, you don't need chemtrails to explain this. This is literally what Ockham's Razor is for. The situation is explainable without bringing in a new assumption.

I also find with the chemtrail crazy that nobody can tell me for sure whether your argument is that chemtrails are causing climate change or that they're being used to try to fight climate change. And that's ignoring the fact there's no evidence of the existence of chemtrails in the first place.

If I have to see one more insane webpage or Twitter account devoted to photos of evil clouds, I may lose it. Once again, this is about ignorance. Just because you don't understand cloud formation, doesn't mean "the government" is doing something nefarious.
leetennant
4 / 5 (1) Nov 18, 2017
Also, as I've tried to explain to people many times before, it's the unicorns. Why won't anybody listen to me?

Drop by my Twitter account for hundreds of deranged photos of rainbows as "proof". Those unicorn rainbow farts are destroying life as we know it and nobody will listen!
Plantagenet
not rated yet Nov 20, 2017
The article incorrectly states that it took "25 years" to get a treaty. Actually the Paris Accords are the second UN climate accord----the first was the Kyoto Accords back in the 1990s.
leetennant
not rated yet Nov 20, 2017
Yeah but Kyoto was weak and non-binding so really the Paris Accords is the first. Everybody talked big during Kyoto but then went home and caved to whatever invested interested threw around the most cash. They didn't make it binding to get people on board but then, you know, it wasn't binding.
antialias_physorg
not rated yet Nov 20, 2017
where hundreds of diplomats can argue for days over whether a text will say "should" or "shall"

This may sound bizarre to someone who has never been in a production process, but it is actually very common to argue over this in terms of requirements to fulfill in any kind of specification. These terms have very specific meanings.

"Shall" means: This is a requirement that MUST be fulfilled or the result will not be accepted as 'done'. I.e. if the customer doesn't get this requirement fulfilled then he has every right to refuse payment.

"Should" means: Efforts must be expended to fulfill the requirement, but non-compliance does not prevent a 'done' verdict. I.e. if the customer doesn't get this requirement fulfilled then both parties may, at the end, haggle over the price but it is no cause for refusing purchase.

In terms of national effort the change from "shall" to "should" can mean billions of dollars in expense.
leetennant
not rated yet Nov 20, 2017
This reminds me of a lot of the garbage about the EU that was spread around the UK and that ultimately led to Brexit. As a statistician I live daily with the reality that a specific word can change a definition entirely. This can mean poor regulation, poor intelligence and billions of dollars in mistakes. The average punter may think it sounds crazy to spend a week debating what a banana is but that makes a huge impact in the long term.

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