At 5 pm on November 23rd, 2013, the Warsaw stadium hosting this year’s UN Climate Conference, COP19, erupted in applause. The room, packed with party delegates and observers who had already worked through the final night and into the next evening showed enormous relief that some progress had been made. The progress in question? To adopt a future mitigation agenda “inviting” parties to initiate “preparations” for intended nationally determined contributions. In other words, No emissions targets, no pledge and review process, not even commitments. At the podium, two chairmen high-fived. Meanwhile, frustration erupted at the back of the hall by all who recognized that this was just a formal way of saying we’re still headed for a devastating global rise in temperatures.
To some, this year’s conference in Warsaw is a success: given the low expectations going into the summit, the mere fact that conclusions were passed regarding climate finance, “contributions” to greenhouse gas emissions reductions, and the contentious issue of “loss & damage” is something to celebrate. But there’s a stark and fatal distinction between success for the conference and success for the climate, and at least some of the finger pointing can be directed toward the host nation itself, Poland. To get a full picture, let’s go back to Day 1 of the COP19 conference:
On November 11th 2013, Yeb Sano famously addressed the conference hall by calling on delegates to “stop this madness” of climate change, linking it to the recent onslaught of Typhoon Haiyan in Sano’s home country, the Philippines. Sano made the public commitment to fast until a meaningful outcome was reached at the 19th Conference of Parties (COP19). As Sano walked out of the hall, approximately 60 youth stood behind him in solidarity, in an action pre-approved by security. Three of these activists were exiled from the conference moments later for holding small banners listing Typhoon death tolls.
When asked about the de-badging of his companions, Nathan Thanki of the organization Earth in Brackets says of the COP process, “the parameters of what’s allowed are constantly shifting, there are no clear rules. Everyone is pointing fingers at everyone else.”
This year’s de-badging comes after the deportation of activists in Doha last year for holding a “Qatar – Why Host, Not Lead” banner, and four years after 230 activists were arrested in the streets of Copenhagen in protest against the summit’s woefully poor results.
More dramatically still, on November 21, hundreds of environmental activists and civil society organizations such as WWF, Oxfam International, and Friends of the Earth Europe staged a unified walk-out of the COP in Warsaw’s national stadium. The activists are spreading the message that the world needs to recognize the failures of COP19’s negotiations, and that the ministers and delegates still arguing within closed doors must hear the people’s demands. Polluters talk, We walk, read civil society’s shirts and banners as they left the stadium en masse today. Just like G77 delegates abandoning the Loss and Damage negotiations at 4 am on November 20th, all have been left to wonder, why talk if no one’s listening?
Even before the start of COP19 and its various outrages, the Polish government came under fire for its utter mismanagement of the event. First, Polish organizers were criticized for posting online comments about the great benefits of Arctic ice melting for oil and gas exploration. And when Greenpeace discovered that in a nearby hotel, Poland would be hosting the World Coal Association summit it demanded, in bill-board sized banners, “Who rules Poland? Coal industry or the people?”
This year’s COP is also the first of its kind to be corporate sponsored. BMW, the oil conglomerate LOTOS Group, and General Motors are only a few examples of corporate control pervading COP19, despite the international conference’s alleged goal of forging a global agreement for avoiding catastrophic climate change and, arguably, for deciding the fate of humanity.
Given the Poles’ dire handling of events and the historical impotence of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), few were optimistic that COP19 would produce effective progress toward reaching a global agreement on climate change in 2015. Progress has been made, but not in the direction of diverging from a 4.5-6° C rise in global average temperatures. So far the UNFCCC has proved utterly unable to address the problem of climate change, yet back-patting, high fives and the repeated incantation of the “spirit of compromise” continue each time the gavel sounds.
But despite the implications for the climate, many still argue that the UNFCCC serves an important function as a global stage for environmental and development concerns. It provides the world’s most vulnerable populations, for whom climate change is already a destructive force, a space to voice their grievances and demands. According to this perspective, civil society, including NGOs, activists and organizations fighting for issues of environmental justice and sustainable development play an important role at the UN climate conferences, serving as a much needed counter balance to the business and commercial interests on display at these climate change negotiations.
However, with creative corporate advertisements such as showcased BMWs and Emirate Airline beanbag chairs dotting the halls, the words of civil society and marginalized people, the ones most in need of a robust and ambitious climate deal, are nowhere to be seen. As Venezuela pointed out during the final session, poorer countries with far fewer delegates were sacrificing their health and livelihood to participate in the 30+ hours of ongoing final talks. “We are human beings, we are not machines to deliver decisions” said representative Claudia Salerno. The world’s most pressing problem for the future is being addressed within a game of power and economic influence. Those with enough courage to raise the basic question, “How many more?” have been silenced within the only truly multilateral space available for solving a global crisis.
The Climate Conference in Warsaw has shown, in no uncertain terms, the divisiveness of climate change. Division between the loud corporate voices and the silencing of civil society; between the vulnerable demands of developing countries and the stubborn obstinacy of the US and others, and most crucially, a division between whether these leaders have gathered to work toward addressing climate change, or whether they’re each just desperate not to return home empty-handed.