The U.N.’s Terrible, Infuriating, Frustrating Climate Talks

Phillipines lead negotiator Yeb Sano expressed disappointment at the progress in U.N. climate talks while mourning thousands of deaths in his home country from a devastating typhoon.
National Journal
Alex Brown
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Alex Brown
Nov. 25, 2013, 10:55 a.m.

United Na­tions cli­mate talks ended Sat­urday with a last-ditch agree­ment to set a timetable in the fu­ture to make goals that will hope­fully one day com­prise part of a fu­ture pact on cli­mate change. If that doesn’t sound much like pro­gress, it took an ag­on­iz­ing ef­fort to broker even that res­ol­u­tion.

Talks in Warsaw, Po­land, star­ted two weeks ago with lim­ited hope for a large-scale fix, but their end tempered am­bi­tions even fur­ther. “By tak­ing us to the brink of col­lapse, look­ing over the edge and then pulling back, we come away feel­ing de­lighted that any pro­gress has been made at all,” said Jonath­an Grant, dir­ect­or of sus­tain­ab­il­ity and cli­mate change for Price­wa­ter­house­Coopers.

That “pro­gress” comes in the form of an agree­ment for each coun­try to provide emis­sions goals by the time in­ter­na­tion­al cli­mate del­eg­ates meet again in Par­is in 2015. The deal also provides some aid for poor coun­tries suf­fer­ing from the ef­fects of cli­mate change.

The first sign of trouble for these talks came early, when Warsaw was se­lec­ted as the host site. En­vir­on­ment­al groups wer­en’t pleased that one of Europe’s heav­iest coal-burn­ing coun­tries would serve as the back­drop to dis­cus­sions on how to cut emis­sions. Mean­while, the event’s Pol­ish or­gan­izers drew heat for a blog post sug­gest­ing — tongue-in-cheek, ap­par­ently — that melt­ing ice would open new op­por­tun­it­ies to chase “pir­ates, ter­ror­ists, and eco­lo­gists.”

Aus­tralia ad­ded its own con­tro­versy be­fore the talks began, tak­ing heat after it an­nounced it would not send a gov­ern­ment min­is­ter to Warsaw. Many of that coun­try’s lead­ers are in the midst of ef­forts to re­peal the car­bon tax, lead­ing to ac­cus­a­tions it isn’t ser­i­ous about tack­ling cli­mate is­sues.

Then, right be­fore the talks kicked off, Typhoon Haiy­an struck the Phil­ip­pines, killing thou­sands and — for many — il­lus­trat­ing the dis­astrous ef­fects of cli­mate change. Yeb Sano, the Filipino del­eg­ate to the con­fer­ence, opened the talks with a tear­ful call for ac­tion, pledging a hun­ger strike for the re­mainder of the meet­ings un­til an agree­ment was reached. The ur­gency of the dis­aster, coupled with Sano’s plea, only served to high­light the slow pace of find­ing cli­mate con­sensus.

Less than a week in­to the con­fer­ence, Ja­pan an­nounced dra­mat­ic cut­backs to its once-am­bi­tious emis­sions goals, an­ger­ing many in the world com­munity.

It didn’t get bet­ter from there. The sum­mit di­vided over de­mands from poor coun­tries that in­dus­tri­al­ized na­tions provide aid for the dis­asters that may be in­duced by cli­mate change and that have a tend­ency to dis­pro­por­tion­ally im­pact the de­vel­op­ing world. The poor coun­tries staged a walkout mid­way through the con­fer­ence, claim­ing the “loss and dam­age” pro­vi­sions were in­ad­equate.

The same day, Po­land fired its en­vir­on­ment min­is­ter, Mar­cin Korolec, who was in the midst of presid­ing over the glob­al talks. He was al­lowed to keep his post at the con­fer­ence, but his dis­missal led many to be­lieve Po­land was send­ing a sig­nal about its un­will­ing­ness to ac­cept tough curbs on emis­sions.

One day later, en­vir­on­ment­al groups de­cided they’d had enough. Green­peace, the World Wild­life Fund, Friends of the Earth, and oth­ers walked out, cas­tig­at­ing a con­fer­ence that was “on track to de­liv­er vir­tu­ally noth­ing.”

They wer­en’t far off. In the end, it took the stuff of col­lege ex­am week — an all-night­er — for del­eg­ates to agree to try to do something in the fu­ture. Few were sat­is­fied when the con­fer­ence wrapped up with plans to make plans. “We did not achieve a mean­ing­ful out­come,” said Sano.

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