Reflections on a Dysfunctional Climate Summit

December 20, 2019 | 11:11 am
Susana Vera/REUTERS
Alden Meyer
Former Contributor

As I arrived at the Féria de Madrid metro station on the Saturday before the opening of the annual United Nations climate summit (referred to as COP 25), I was struck by the signage in the exit tunnel. “17.2 MILLION PEOPLE LEAVING THEIR HOMES BECAUSE OF CLIMATE DISASTERS IS NOT A CHANGE,” one graphic read. Another said “MIAMI DISAPPEARING UNDER THE SEA IS NOT A CHANGE;” a third read “40% OF THE ANTARCTICA ICE MELTING IS NOT A CHANGE.” All of them had the same tag line next to them: “DON’T CALL IT CHANGE, CALL IT CLIMATE EMERGENCY.” This was my first indication of how intent the Chilean COP 25 presidency was on driving home the theme of the climate summit, “time for action.”

At the high-level opening of COP 25 on Monday, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres underscored the message of urgency and laid down a clear challenge to the negotiators: “COP25 must convey to the world a firm determination to change course…and finally demonstrate that we are serious in our commitment to stop the war against nature,” he said. “There is no time and no reason to delay. We have the tools, we have the science, we have the resources. Let us show we also have the political will that people demand from us.”

Unfortunately, over the next two weeks, political will was in very short supply in the negotiating rooms of the massive Féria de Madrid conference center. I have been attending these climate negotiations since they first started in 1991, and in those almost 30 years, I have never experienced such a sharp disconnect between what the science clearly requires and what growing numbers of people around the world are demanding from their governments on the one hand, and what COP 25 delivered in terms of meaningful action on the other. This is true both when it comes to raising the ambition of countries’ emissions reduction commitments under the Paris Agreement, and also when it comes to mobilizing much greater support for the vulnerable countries and communities who are facing ever-more-devastating impacts of climate change.

Show us some ambition

A little over two months earlier, at Secretary-General Guterres’ Climate Action Summit in New York, we saw many of the world’s most vulnerable countries joining state and local government officials, business leaders, investors and others in announcing ambitious climate action commitments. But the world’s biggest emitting countries — accounting for nearly 80 percent of global carbon emissions — were nowhere to be found. If these big countries continue to evade their responsibility to substantially increase the ambition of their existing emissions reduction commitments under Paris, they will make the task of meeting the well below 2 degrees Celsius temperature limitation goal — much less the 1.5 degrees Celsius goal  — almost impossible, as the latest United Nations Environment Program Emissions Gap report makes clear.

In a rational world, this fact would be explicitly acknowledged, and countries would be urged to make every effort to raise the ambition of their emissions reduction commitments. But in Madrid, such clarity was actively resisted, with big developing countries like China, India, and Brazil joining developed countries like the U.S., Japan, and Australia in opposition to strong ambition language.

In the end, the best we could get in Madrid was four paragraphs in the Paris Agreement decision that:

  • “acknowledges the growing urgency of enhancing ambition and responding to the threat of climate change;”
  • “re-emphasizes with serious concern the urgent need to address the significant gap” between the current collective ambition of countries’ emissions pledges under Paris and what is needed to meet the Agreement’s temperature limitation goals;
  • “recalls” that each country’s Paris pledge should “reflect its highest possible ambition;” and
  • “recalls the request” in the 2015 decision adopting the Paris Agreement that countries should consider updating their current national action plans by 2020, and urges them “to consider the [ambition] gap with a view to reflecting their highest possible ambition when responding to this request.”

Even this restatement of past agreed language was hard fought, and was one of the factors contributing to COP 25 earning the dubious distinction of running the longest overtime of any of the annual climate summits to date. But these paragraphs do at least provide a basis for pressing countries to step up climate action over the next year in the run-up to COP 26 in Glasgow, Scotland.

All eyes are on Europe

With President Trump taking formal action just weeks before COP 25 to initiate U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement and doing all he can to undermine domestic climate and energy policies, no one expects American leadership to address the climate crisis until at least January, 2021. Instead, all eyes are upon the European Union. At the European Council meeting at the end of last week, EU leaders announced their commitment to achieving net zero emissions by 2050, but made no progress on raising the ambition of the EU’s 2030 emissions reduction pledge under Paris. It is essential for EU leaders to reach agreement on this critical issue early next year, so that the EU can engage constructively with China, India and other major-emitting countries in discussions on substantially increasing their ambition as well, in the run-up to COP 26 in Glasgow next November.

The summit to be held in Leipzig, Germany next September between EU leaders and Chinese President Xi Jinping is shaping up as perhaps the key moment on next year’s climate calendar. If the EU and China can jointly announce they will raise the ambition of their Paris pledges, it could break the current logjam and encourage other big countries to join them. But to reach such an achievement, the EU must move first.

Lost and damaged

The issue of “loss and damage” — the now unavoidable impacts of climate change on vulnerable countries and communities around the world — has been increasingly prominent in the climate negotiations in recent years. It is abundantly clear that the current support for those on the front lines of the climate emergency is grossly inadequate, and that we need a path forward that gives vulnerable countries the assurance that they will see finance and capacity-building support substantially scaled-up to address the loss and damage they are already experiencing.

The United States has been the most vociferous opponent of initiating meaningful discussions on ways to increase support for developing country action, but other developed countries such as the EU, Australia, and Canada are also responsible for the logjam in negotiations over loss and damage that took place in Madrid. The final decision on loss and damage established the Santiago Network for Averting, Minimizing, and Addressing Loss and Damage, aimed at catalyzing technical assistance to vulnerable countries from relevant organizations, bodies, networks, and experts, and urged that finance, technology, and capacity-building support to address loss and damage be scaled up. But vulnerable countries will have to press hard to get any serious political engagement from developed countries at COP 26 and beyond on specific ways to mobilize this support.

For detailed reports on these and other official outcomes of COP 25, see the Earth Negotiations Bulletin’s summary here, and Carbon Brief’s excellent analysis here.

The real United States shows up

While the official U.S. delegation resisted meaningful discussions on climate finance and could say nothing helpful about raising ambition, there were others who came to Madrid to assure the world that when it comes to addressing the climate emergency, President Trump isn’t the true face of America.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi led a Congressional delegation to COP 25 consisting of fourteen Representatives, including the chairs of four key House committees focusing on climate change, as well as Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI). They arrived on the Sunday before the negotiations started, and engaged in a whirlwind set of activities over the next two days.

At a reception held on Sunday by the U.S. ambassador to Spain, I was able to directly relay to Speaker Pelosi an invitation from the Climate Vulnerable Forum — an international partnership of 48 countries, highly vulnerable to a warming planet — for her to come address their high level Leaders Event the next morning. Two other U.S. NGOs reinforced the ask with Speaker Pelosi’s staff, and she decided to add the event to her already packed schedule. In her remarks to the presidents, prime ministers, and other dignitaries assembled for the event, she said the vulnerable countries were “at the heart of the matter,” and assured them that “we are here to say to all of you, on behalf of the House of Representatives in the Congress of the United States, we’re still in it.  We are still in it.” She and the rest of the delegation echoed that message at a press conference later that day.

At the end of the first week of COP 25, the We Are Still In coalition — a group of governors, mayors, business leaders, and others working to meet the U.S. commitments under Paris despite President Trump’s irresponsible decision to withdraw from the Agreement — launched the U.S. Climate Action Center, which featured four jam-packed days of events describing the range of actions being undertaken to decarbonize the U.S. economy. The highlight of the four days was the launch of the America’s Pledge report on December 10th, describing how much states, cities, and businesses deploying aggressive best-practice climate policies can do to cut U.S. emissions by 2030, as well as how much more could be achieved with reengaged federal government layering aggressive, post-2020 climate action on top of these subnational efforts. After remarks by actor and climate activist Harrison Ford as well as former Colorado Governor Bill Ritter, the co-chair of America’s Pledge — former New York City Mayor and current presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg — presented the report to the UNFCCC Executive Secretary, Patricia Espinosa.

Climate activism on steroids

Over the two weeks of COP 25, there were a range of actions and events organized by the Fridays for Future initiative launched by Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, as well as by a broad coalition of civil society constituencies supporting climate action. These included:

  • Marches in Madrid and other cities around the world on December 6th, calling for much greater climate action;
  • A Unite Behind the Science panel discussion organized by Greta and her fellow youth activist Luisa Neubauer on December 10th, which included my colleague Rachel Cleetus;
  • A Climate Emergency high-level event On December 11th, featuring Greta, Greenpeace co-executive director Jennifer Morgan, Potsdam Institute of Climate Studies director Johan Rockström and others;
  • An unsanctioned protest on December 11th by over 300 climate activists, including many young climate strikers from around the world, standing up for women’s and indigenous people’s rights and calling for ambitious actions from rich countries (many of these activists were forcibly evicted from the premises by UN security, with most able to re-enter the conference center the next day); and
  • A People’s Closing Plenary on December 14th, where representatives from the Indigenous Peoples, people living with disabilities, Climate Justice Network, Climate Action Network, faith communities, and the Women & Gender, Youth, and Trade Union constituencies discussed what the COP 25 negotiations could have delivered if negotiators were putting the interests of their citizens above those of the fossil fuel industry and other opponents of action to address the climate crisis. I was pleased to be able to offer some remarks on the upwelling of climate action across the United States, and how it contrasts with the positions taken by the Trump Administration.

These events, along with the dozens of side events, press conferences, and campaigner actions both inside and outside the conference venue, demonstrated the growing pressure for climate action and climate justice being generated all around the world. Despite the dysfunction on exhibition from the ministers and country negotiators at COP 25, this wave of activism gives me hope that a better world is possible.

Since COP 17 in Durban, South Africa in 2011, I have carried with me a lanyard imprinted with the inspirational saying of Nelson Mandela: “it always seems impossible until it’s done.” During the closing hours of COP 25, when I felt a mix of anger, grief, and exhaustion about to overcome me, that lanyard gave me strength and confidence that just as Nelson Mandela and the anti-apartheid movement overcame incredible obstacles in the fight for justice in South Africa, the forces represented at the People’s Closing Plenary will prevail in the fight for climate justice and a sustainable planet for our children and grandchildren.