The kids are not alright: Frustration grows as the UNFCCC fails to actually address climate change

by Graham Reeder

In 1992, the world’s governments came together in Rio and agreed to a framework convention with the straightforward objective of achieving “the stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” This was to be achieved “within a time frame sufficient to allow ecosystems to adapt naturally to climate change, to ensure that food production is not threatened and to enable economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner.” (Article 2 of the Convention: Objectives)

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the world’s governments have already failed to achieve this. Science tells us that the safe level of CO2 concentration in the atmosphere is 350 parts per million, the average concentration in 2011 was 391.57. In terms of timeframe and natural adaptation, given what countries are putting on the table, we are on track for 4 to 6°C of average temperature rise, if you take a look at the recent world bank report the impacts of a four degree warmer world are chilling, they include dramatic heat waves and drought, glacial retreat, and sea-level rise. All you have to do is ask a pastoralist farmer in the horn of Africa, which is on its fifth consecutive year of severe drought, to find out if food production is being threatened by climate change. Parties here in Doha are in a peculiar situation, in which they know that the multilateral system is the only forum in which countries can truly address climate change in a just and whole manner, but in which we are so clearly failing to do so.

Papau New Guinea put the feeling in the room here nicely when they said at the opening plenary of the Conference of the Parties that this felt like ‘Groundhog Day’, every year she found herself in the same seat saying the same thing and it doesn’t seem like anything had changed. Now while this doesn’t do justice to the amount of things that are being done, it does point to the disconnect between the incrementalist approach being taken and the radical change. Scientists are calling this ‘Decade-Zero’, if we don’t act in this decade to seriously reduce emissions we have almost no chance of staying below 2° C of warming—the threshold between dangerous climate change and extremely dangerous climate change. Meanwhile, negotiators are jumping ship on the tracks of negotiations that get them to mitigate in the short term (Kyoto Protocol Second Commitment Period and the Comparability discussions of the Ad-Hoc Working Group on Long Term Cooperative Action, the package agreed to 5 years ago in Bali) while putting all their eggs in a shiny new basket without any architecture that won’t realistically start until 2020 (the Durban Platform on Enhanced Action, agreed to last year); this will be too late.

Observers in negotiations

I’ve appreciated the no-nonsense tone that some negotiators have taken so far this year, opening meetings that are normally filled with self-congratulation and fake formality are being filled with strong statements about the conditions for success or failure of this meeting, the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) stated that if we do not establish a mechanism to address Loss and Damage from climate change that addresses compensation at this meeting they will consider it a failure, I sincerely hope they hold strong to that position. AOSIS, and really all developing countries that are facing the impacts of climate change need to start being compensated for the damage incurred by the developed world, this is a matter of international legal and moral obligations.

In terms of civil society, messages will always be mixed, but I really see a need for a stark separation between lobbying and campaigning. Lobbying is the world of the politically possible, you put pressure on parties that you can influence and don’t waste your time with governments that won’t listen to you (I’m looking at you, North America); meanwhile, campaigns need to be about the necessary and the larger ethical issue, by having the same targets for lobbying and campaigning we let those countries who don’t listen to us—those  same countries who are most responsible for this issue and are doing the most to block or slow progress—off the hook. Doing that is shying away from civil society’s responsibility to be the voice of the people in these halls and around the world. Small campaign ‘wins’ in the climate movement that have pressured developing countries to buckle under campaign pressure aren’t doing much to tackle climate change, they are just making these countries afraid of us. While these countries may not be shining examples of climate action and have plenty of problems (OPEC, for example), they are not the root causes of this problem, they are merely a symptom.


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