COP 19: Is Change Coming for Climate Negotiations?


The United Nations Climate talks occurring in Warsaw, Poland this week are once again lowering expectations for those who realize that we need immediate action to stabilize the planet’s atmosphere maintain our climate at a livable temperature. Interesting however, is that the argument could be made that opponents of action on pollution mitigation may be more concerned than before that policy change may actually occur and are expending more energy to stop it.

Two notable things that hint at this increasing effort exerted against binding agreements; the dramatic increase in corporate sponsorship and presence at the talks, and the bombshell release that the United States contingent seems to be focusing on derailing “blame and liability” measures from being taken in the agreements made.

Previous meetings of the Conference of Parties (COP) have been lackluster over the years, gaining little in the way of commitment during the talks and less in the way of on-the-ground action that is desperately needed given the crisis we all face. Member states have closely guarded their own national interests and conceded as little as possible in the agreements made, with the United States taking a vocal lead role on limiting real action from taking place. During this meeting of the COP however, corporations are directly flexing their muscle in the face of those gathering to make climate agreements, spending more money and making an even more visible effort to counter the talks. While present at previous COP meetings, observers are noting the high level of direct branding and overt presence companies have at this week long session. From ArcelorMittal (a steel and mining company) logos plastered to the plenary halls to the corporate sponsor logos stamped bags the delegates are given to carry around, industry is not only free to lobby attendee representatives, but to market to them as well. Additionally, the fossil fuel industry is holding a convention as well in Warsaw they are calling the “Coal and Climate Summit” at the same time the COP 19 is occurring.  The crackdown and limiting of activism in favor of protecting the environment is in full force, while corporations and monied interests seem to be seeking and gaining even more access. One climate activist, Clémence Hutin, ejected from the conference for showing support for the devastated Philippines and their Climate negotiator, noted the differing treatment between advocates and lobbyists:

They are most welcome, and a young person fighting for the climate is not. And I just don’t understand what the secretary’s message is here, because, for me, the UNFCCC is a democratic space. I don’t understand why civil society isn’t welcome here and corporations are.”

While this it is not hard to see the cynicism of these actions by interests opposed to altering the fossil fuels based business-as-usual position, it is interesting to note that this is a ratcheting up of energy and commitment expended to defeating climate action. In the past it was enough to merely control key officials to maintain the status quo on climate/energy talks, this increase in effort to derail the current COP may indicate growing concern over the strength of the movement to curb emissions.

Where corporate sponsors are the backdrop for the business interests of the world, devastation and activists are the backdrop for the release of the other: a call to move from climate action to monetary reparations to those most affected by the foot-dragging of developed nations. Powered by thousands of activists on the streets calling for definitive steps to be taken and focused by the calls and fasting of the Philippines Chief Climate Negotiator Yeb Saño on behalf of his global warming fueled, super-storm ravaged country, developing nations are taking a forceful position demanding that climate impacts must be paid for by those who refuse to change their behavior. Concern over this move has prompted the United States to instruct its negotiators to oppose efforts to focus on “blame and liability” pushed in the negotiations in order to prevent economic actions being taken against those who have historically contributed the most to global warming, as revealed by a leaked State Department memo acquired by the Indian newspaper The Hindu.  As a result, a delegation of 133 countries including China walked out of talks centered around Damage and Compensation after developed nations refused to agree to terms of restitution for environmental impacts from climate change, as well as the formation of a UN body to oversee the process.  It appears that developing nations are continuing to take a stronger and more committed stance on the issue of acknowledgement and action on the impact of global warming, as they see both the brunt of the damage firsthand as well as face the inability to pay for the devastating changes occurring.

The COP meetings have been rightly criticized as just a gathering of reluctant participants spewing empty promises without taking action, but perhaps change is imminent. No longer able to either deny the science of global warming nor pretend the impacts are imagined (and extremely costly to the lives of their citizens and economies) there seems to be a shifting of awareness, a realization that change will occur.  Negotiators are now working from a playbook that deals with not only special interests they must protect, but impacts and outcomes from protecting those interests as well. The proverbial flames are licking at the door outside, and it grows increasingly difficult to pretend nothing should be done despite those who would want business to continue as usual.

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