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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