Our 20 years of climate talks – for that is essentially what they are – are strewn with high-sounding phrases: Rio Earth Summit and its Framework Convention, Berlin Mandate, Kyoto Protocol, Buenos Aires Action Plan, Marrakech Accords, New Delhi Work Programme, Bali Action Plan, Copenhagen Accord, Durban Platform, Doha Gateway.
There is a chance we shall have the Warsaw Stepping-stone soon, though mercy may intervene.
Either way we shall retroactively apply a label to convey, to an increasingly fearful world, a particular flavour – a charm – to the on-going purgatorial experience that is the annual conference of the parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.
For without diplomatic exegesis we shall all be astray, falling about ourselves in recrimination and concern over the fate of the planet. With annual labels we can reason our way – develop an explanatory framework – as to why it has taken the two critical decades to essentially miss the boat. Why the sea ahead is stormy, even if we are in fact on the same boat.
We actually got it right at Rio back in ’92 with the statement of global objective in the Framework Convention – stabilisation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere at a level that will prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. Perhaps that was the easy part. And rich country emissions (from the North) would immediately commence reductions within the context of stabilising global emissions – thereby allowing the poor (the South) to develop ‘low-emission trajectories’ for their economic development.
The two main principles underpinning the ‘global bargain’ – common but differentiated responsibility on the one hand; and precaution on the other – would underpin the future negotiations.
But the diplomatic theory was never internalised in the political world. The US President, stepping off the plane at Rio, warned that the US lifestyle was ‘not up for negotiation’ when in fact it was, or at least its black-energy underpin certainly was. So when the Kyoto Protocol, five years later, sought to have the US and the North accept a legal obligation to cut emissions while China and the South would not, the US spat the dummy.
‘Historical responsibility’ and ‘contraction & convergence’ never got a serious look-in.
And the brave concept of ‘sustainable consumption’ that was meant to twin with ‘sustainable development’ was embraced by one country only – Norway. It required us all to look in the mirror. The phrase withered away.
And the precautionary principle – that lack of certainty on aspects of the climate science must not be used as pretext for political inaction – was violated from the beginning. By-and-large the IPCC’s 5th Assessment Report of 2013 advances observations and conclusions comparable to its 1st report of 1990 – with, ironically, an increase in confidence level from 90% to 95%. Yet the contributing science has been undermined relentlessly, often with hostility, by varying forms of scepticism whose intrinsic proportions are inflated by the media.
As a result the scientific method, which rests on empiricism, contestability and objectivity, and political opposition to it have morphed in the public mind into competing ‘belief systems’. The confrontation between science and faith over climate futures is deeply ill-fated – causing division to trump unity, hesitation to weaken resolve, inertia to substitute for action.
The Framework Convention was always meant to be consummated with a second global agreement in which all parties would accept legal obligations to curb, then reduce, national emissions. Kyoto was never more than a pilot run for the North. The crunch was Copenhagen, where the historic pivotal power-shift occurred – between the US and China, North and South.
The three years since the train-wreck at Copenhagen have been devoted to picking up the pieces and striving once again, to re-do Bali in the form of the Durban Platform – for a global legal agreement to be signed, now, in 2015 rather than 2009, and enter into force in ’20 rather than ‘13.
Except that, the force of the Rio principles is today in question, stretched and torn by persistent national pin-pricking. New fledgling concepts circulate – bounded flexibility, top-down/ bottom-up hybrid, spectrum of commitments, numbers v rules, opt-in/opt-out, pledge-and-review. The jargon delineates the cognoscenti, duly assembled – linguistic markers along a cliff-trail of failure.
To stay under the 2° threshold of dangerous climate change, global emissions are meant to peak by 2017, three years before the global agreement that would curb and reduce even comes into force.
Back in 1992, global emissions were some 38 billion tonnes. Today they are 50 Gt. The 2°C target requires 44 in 2020 and 21 in ‘50.
At present, voluntary pledges promise 54 Gt. in 2020. Business-as-usual will deliver 58.
BAU will incur 4.5°C. Warming to date (since 1750) is 0.8°. What we see occurring around the world today is caused by 0.8. We are on track to something between 2.6 and 4.5.
That is why legions of youth turn up at the annual climate talks, mill around, meet experts and officials, talk and argue, demonstrate, learn, and report home. They are the symbol – the walking embodiment – of humanity’s hopes and fears for the future.
Here at the Stadium in Warsaw, the scene is different from Doha, from Copenhagen and Rio — all of which I attended. Each has its own visuals, its different dynamic. But they also have much in common.. There are the same competent diplomats, with kids back home, working through the night, the same political leaders descending for the brief high-level segment before hiving off home, the same heady mix of negotiating buzz and global-national tensions.
Above all, the same sense of titanic scale, the same recurring dissonance between common interests yet separate responsibilities.
The same intensifying, existential doubt.
All the world needs now, is love, sweet love.