Wailing on the Road to Cancún

“It’s so bleak, it’s very depressing. But we are activists. When things are bleak, we don’t give up. We get busy.”

So said Meena Raman of the Malaysia-based activist group Third World Network at a small seminar on climate change held in Stockholm this week.  For me, it was an excellent opportunity to get updated on “The Road to Cancun” — the current state of climate negotiations, leading up to the next big UN conference on the matter next month in Mexico.

Per Holmgren explaining how global warming + global dimming = serious global problem

Last year, I was “in the game” in a small way (see “Reflections on CoP-15 and its Aftermath“). This year, I am just a distant spectator. Frankly, I have not felt very motivated to follow the action. While my assessment of last year’s CoP-15 was a bit more positive than most people’s, I have to confess that my mood has also turned gloomier when it comes to climate change. The recent power switch in the US congress — which effectively ties down the Obama administration, a critical actor in this drama — didn’t help. The climate news gets worse, while the resolve to take action at the highest levels has become, if anything, weaker and weaker.

My mood was hardly improved by listening to Per Holmgren’s quick summary of current climate science. Per is a well-known TV meteorologist in Sweden who just stepped off his TV platform to work on climate issues full time. He confirmed what we have already known, for years and years:  it’s bad, getting worse — likely to get a lot worse. “Are people understanding the situation better?” I asked. Yes, especially younger people, said Per. I meet 12 and 13-year-olds who discuss peak oil and all the rest of it. What about geo-engineering? I’m afraid we’ll have no choice but to do some of that, said Per, at the least “lighter” varieties, like carbon capture and storage.

After that gloomy review of the physical situation, Niclas Hälström then mind-mapped the crowd through the political situation, from Kyoto to today. It was no less complex, and no less gloomy. Niclas’s diagrams showed swirling tendrils of connections … the Bali Action Plan … REDD … Annex 2 Countries … the Copenhagen Accord … this is the vocabulary one must learn to follow climate negotiations as a spectator sport. Even when you understand the concepts, it’s still confusing. (I am reminded of watching cricket as an American university student studying in the UK. No matter how hard my friends tried to explain what was going on, I never really understood, and still don’t.)

After Meena Raman’s talk (I’ll report on her talk in a minute, I’m building up to the high point of the afternoon), an official from the Swedish government provided a “balanced” perspective — meaning that he sometimes spoke positively, sometimes gloomily. Sweden is “more than meeting” its Kyoto targets; but the EU targets, not to mention the world’s, are another matter. His talk was informative, but amounted to reading a press release from PowerPoint slides. I had to leave in the middle to pick up my kids from school, and I had the feeling that I would not miss very much in the way of news. (I will refrain from commentary at this time on Swedish climate policy per se.)

Which brings me to Meena Raman …

She was a breath of fresh air. A lawyer by training, she had a gift for turning this complex climate negotiation business into a good, and enervating, story.  Some explanatory high points of her talk:

A lot of what’s happening in these negotiations hinges around a “patch” that was put into the Bali Action Plan to accommodate the United States. According to Meena, the rest of the world acknowledged that the US was facing some rather special political circumstances and so made it possible (indeed, required) for the US and other countries like it (i.e., countries that were not parties to the Kyoto Protocol) to take “comparable” actions. This “comparable actions” bit got around the legally binding target-based approach of Kyoto, to which the US Government so heartily objected.

But in comes the Copenhagen Accord. Kyoto was a legally binding treaty, an instrument of international law. The Copenhagen Accord enjoys no such legally binding status. Kyoto was based on science and targeting setting. Copenhagen resulted in a voluntary “pledge-and-review” system:  countries say they will do something — whatever they feel is appropriate for them — and then report on whether they did it or not.

Here, Meena Raman got on her activist horse and rode hard. “This is where the entire system breaks down,” she said. Her hardest target of critique? Not the US; she seemed to treat it as a lost cause. Not China; she practically defended them because they are being used as scapegoats, and because the bulk of the population in China is still achingly poor. (I would add: the world-leading amounts of  CO2 they now emit are the result of making products consumed in the rich world, which has outsourced its pollution, as well as its production, to China.)

No, she was aiming her critical kris (a Malaysian dagger) at the EU. “In Tanjin [where the last round of preliminary talks were held], the EU said, ‘We are not for a pledge-and-review system.’ But then the EU says, ‘But we have to respect the Copenhagen Accord [which is just such a system]. This is like Jekyll and Hyde! Or maybe I don’t understand … am I the schizophrenic here?”

Worse, according to Meena, “The EU is saying it will only commit [to a target] under Kyoto if the LCA nations [that is, countries not signed up to Kyoto, like the US and China] also commit.” Meena is just a notch short of blistering in her assessment of this lack of leadership on the part of the EU, which she obviously sees as the Last Great Hope for leadership on the issues of scientific, ecological and ethical integrity.  “Shared vision?  There is only blurred vision at the moment.”

She touches, as she must, on the tricky issue of fairness. Is it fair to constrain the poorer nations from emitting, when the rich nations got rich by dumping all this carbon into the atmosphere in the first place? This is a major ethical dilemma, which she does not dig deeply into. It is something like addressing the legacy of slavery:  those nations who profited from slavery are rather reluctant to look back, make an accounting, and make policies of restitution to those peoples whose civilizations suffered as a result. “What happened in the past is regrettable,” goes the usual reasoning, “but we can’t be expected to take responsibility and make restitution for it now. That would be unfair to us. We must go forward from here.” This is the usual “fairness ethic” of international relations, with certain interesting historical exceptions.

But even limited to a present-day perspective, there is plenty for Meena to complain about, from the imposition of unfair conditions on developing countries to report on their mitigation actions, to the insistence that only World Bank can be the distributor of any proposed international climate fund, to the tricky business of “REDD Readiness”, which *might* mean helping countries stop cutting forests, or *might* mean helping them get ready to participate in a monetized global carbon market. Big difference there.

And what of insuring countries like Guatemala or Pakistan against extreme weather events? How can they “adapt to climate change” without support against the all-too-predictable catastrophes that follow in the wake of storms and precipitation changes? What about intellectual property? How can you expect poor countries to pay royalties to companies in the rich world who have the capital make those patented technologies thanks to centuries of access to resources and atmospheric dumping grounds? How can you reconcile all this with, for example, the US steel workers union filing suit against China in the World Trade Organization because it is subsidizing its renewable energy sector so heavily? Isn’t what “developing countries” are supposed to do?

I have to say, I wouldn’t want to be a lawyer arguing for the other side; Meena Raman comes across as polished and passionate as a character from the popular mid-2000’s TV show Boston Legal (at least, the show is popular with me). “The blame game is already in process,” says Meena, “because the politicians are already planning for failure. That’s why China is being positioned as the scapegoat.  For god sakes, let’s not depend on the US for leadership. They have to learn from the rest of the world, from China, on how to move! Without the EU’s leadership, who will lead? If the EU can come back to its role as champion for environmental integrity … well, without that, we will have a ‘race to the bottom.’ We the need the EU to lead the ‘race to the top.’ And Sweden has a huge responsibility, to be a shining example.”

Ah, as I said, there was relatively little shining to be seen in the next speaker’s first two PowerPoint slides, after which I left … but who knows what the rest of the seminar produced. The Swedish Society for Nature Conservation (sponsor of the seminar) usually produces excellent reports on these seminars, in English. I’ll hope for better news there.

Meanwhile, I now have my expectations adjusted and tuned for Cancún. And they are low. But that does not mean that I have lost hope. The global negotiating story is bleak at the moment; but their are increasing bright spots on the map, like California’s successfully voting down an attempt to quash its climate engagement, or the UNEP Green Economy Initiative, or the big global Earth Art project (EARTH) that 350.org is running soon …

We’ll get there. We’ve just got a lot of work still to do.

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