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It's time for the UN climate negotiations to start taking climate change seriously

  • Published at 05:07 pm November 12th, 2019
un climate negotiations

There is no time to waste

From 2 to 13 December, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change will hold its 25th annual Conference of the Parties meeting, more commonly known as the UN climate negotiations. That means that every year, for 25 years, countries have been meeting to figure out what to do about climate change. 25 years. Last March, this anniversary was being celebrated and congratulated on Twitter. But should we be celebrating or are we panicking? 

25 years of international negotiations have not stopped changes in the climate. They have not eliminated greenhouse-gas emissions contributing to climate change. They have not produced a practical and comprehensive mechanism to adapt vulnerable populations to the impacts of climate change, or even to compensate them for the losses and damages they incur. So, the Paris Agreement may be a remarkable achievement in international diplomacy, but on addressing climate change, it leaves much to be desired.

Each year the climate is changing at a rate that consistently exceeds scientific projections. Coastal communities already experience more intense storms, farmers lose their crops as seasons become more irregular, and massive heat waves and droughts affect even the world’s wealthiest countries. With changes in the weather also come residual changes. Climatic changes are projected to increase the spread of vector-borne diseases, such as the rise in dengue cases in Bangladesh earlier this year. As communities around the world deal with the costs of these impacts, we have also learned from scientists that our window for addressing climate change is rapidly coming to a close. 

Fortunately, the future does not have to be so dismal. People around the world are rising to demand action. Just last month, on 20 and 27 September, over 7 million people took part in climate strikes in 117 countries, including in Bangladesh. Inspired by 16-year-old Greta Thunberg’s “Fridays for Future” school strikes, these massive actions have made clear that people are done waiting for solutions. The time for talk is over. We need climate action now.

For many of the activists taking to the streets recently, action on climate change will very literally determine their future. Whether they will have to move from their homelands, whether they will have children, and whether they will face constant risk and uncertainty. As food and water insecurity grows, natural disasters are becoming more frequent, and diseases spread. It is not a coincidence that schoolchildren are changing the demands and approach of the climate movement. They call out international inaction directly and refuse to soften their message. They do not have time to listen to excuses about costs, bureaucracy, and global governance.

So, the UN climate negotiations must begin taking the issue of climate change seriously, as young generations have no choice but to do, this is not an easy task. I have attended the negotiations many times, and they are not structured to produce substantive action. Several colleagues of mine have eagerly come to the climate negotiations in recent years, only to leave disappointed and disillusioned by the process. As obstructionist countries, including my own, exercise their disproportionate leverage in the negotiating room, the world’s most vulnerable countries struggle to make their voices heard. And the standards of diplomacy and consensus ultimately mean that the end product of these negotiations are vague and watered-down decision texts. 

In the climate negotiations, the task-driven professionalism of the bureaucratic arena inevitably overtakes the reality of experienced loss, fear, and uncertainty that characterizes our present. The climate negotiations have become less about climate change and more about producing documents that will advise the production of later documents that may suggest how countries should consider taking action. It is easy to get caught up in the debates over wording, parentheses, and punctuation that arises in each set of meetings. When you are sucked into the complex world of UN negotiations, these debates become exciting, and it is easy to forget the enormity of the unprecedented issue at hand.

It is time for countries at the UN climate negotiations to step back and see the forest, instead of focusing on the individual leaves on the trees. Maybe then they will see that the forest is burning down, and its inhabitants are dying, as their delegates jet around the world each year to yet another meeting about what should be done. Changing our global approach to climate change is a huge challenge, but not one that should be accepted as insurmountable. We need to raise the bar for success so that we’re not congratulating the institution on yet another year of negotiating our future. Instead, we must hold them accountable for generating real action. 

In December, countries at the UN climate negotiations will have the chance to shift their approach to work with the urgency that our rapidly changing climate demands. The impacts of climate change are no longer abstract or years away. Climate change is here, and it is nearly too late for global leaders to start doing something about it. 

Danielle Falzon is a PhD Candidate, Brown University, USA.

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