September 23rd, and it’s my birthday. But far more importantly this is the day that the United Nations – on the initiative of Ban Ki Moon – is holding its much heralded Climate Summit in New York, under the banner of Catalyzing Action.
Before 2014 my knowledge of the subject was sketchy and I had more belief and conviction than knowledge and science – I broadly agreed that Climate Change was an important issue but wasn’t ‘clued in’ when it came to the details and the range of opinions, options and interests. This was going to change, and in a significant way.
Towards the end of 2013 a chance engagement with the UN Climate Change Secretariat came my way, and as a result of working ‘up close and intimate’ with all facets of the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention for Climate Change) I have sharpened my focus, broadened my views and learned an enormous amount about the tremendous challenges and potential responses to possibly the most important existential threat and ethical test facing humankind today.
Although I always put a lot of enthusiasm, illusion and energy into every engagement that comes my way, my collaboration with the Climate Change Secretariat was something apart, something very special, and something unique. This was not about helping a business to make more money, or to help manage risk or to formulate good strategy, this was about working for a global governance organisation whose remit goes well beyond anything I had ever encountered before.
I’d like to backtrack slightly, and just mention an anecdote from my infancy that contributed to shaping my views of the United Nations.
Back in the sixties I was at a drab secondary school, which bored me as much as being in primary school, if not more. So I used to mix my disinterest with what I took as frivolous exercises and meaningless exams, with a keen interest in world events, the environment and governance. I would later go on to take a keen interest in philosophy, politics and economics, but I won’t explore that here.
In 1966 I was staying with my grandparents in a quiet little village just outside Cardiff (Wales), and I would frequently take trips by British Rail train down to the city, either to use the magnificent Olympic sized swimming pool built for the Commonwealth Games, and to help out in the office of Plaid Cymru (the Party of Wales).
At that time, Cardiff was home of the United Nations Association of Wales, and it occupied part of what is known as the Temple of Peace, a tidy classical affair in the civic centre – also the home of the Cardiff City Council and the National Museum and Art Gallery of Wales.
One day it occurred to me to ask my grandparents if Wales was a full member of the UN, because for as much as I tried to identify the flag of the red dragon on a white and green background outside the UN Headquarters in Manhattan, I always assumed that with so many flags on show, some other flags were obscuring the view. “No, son, of course not”, they replied. At the time I was a little disappointed.
So, thinking this was a tad unfair, I ‘naturally’ wrote to the Secretary General of the UN to ask him if Wales could be admitted as a full member of the organisation and assembly. Just as you do, when you are twelve years old.
I thought nothing more about it. You don’t grasp the full implications and the accruable benefits of persistent ‘follow up’ when you are a kid.
Sometime later, when I had resumed my place at school, I was summoned by a rather severe deputy-headmaster to the headmaster’s office. “Oh god! What now”, I thought, who peed in these guys cereals today.
I entered the headmaster’s office, an odd and dismal sort of place of light and shadows, smelling of cheap tobacco, stale sweat and instant coffee.
“Jones, it has come to our attention that you have received correspondence from the Secretary General of the United Nations, what have you to say about this?”
And what correspondence. It was a large parcel that had come straight from New York, addressed to me. Brilliant!
I swiftly took the parcel off the desk and held it in my hands. “Thank you, Sir. Is that all, Sir?” I asked. “But Jones, how come U Thant has written to you?” I paused and replied, “I imagine that it is because I wrote to him, Sir”.
I left the office, which was actually easy, as the headmaster and deputy head were lost for words – or ‘utterly gobsmacked’, to put it in technical terms.
At my parent’s home, I opened the parcel. It was a treasure trove of books, glossy pamphlets, brochures, maps, signed photographs, fantastic posters, badges, stickers and pens, and, of course, I letter signed personally by Secretary General U Thant. It covered absolutely everything that the UN was involved in, on all fronts.
Oh, happy days!
But back now to the recent experiences and to answer the question: what did I learn about Climate Change in 2014?
First I learned about the history, actual roles and responsibilities of the UN Climate Change Secretariat, and the people, motivations, groups and initiatives that make the UNFCCC process run. Its mission is simple enough to state, it’s tasked with preventing “dangerous” human interference with the climate system, and it actively supports cooperative action by States to combat climate change and its impacts on humanity and ecosystems. A massive undertaking no matter which way you look at it..
Of course that is a considerable simplification, but the full details are readily available on the UNFCCC web site and elsewhere.
Founded in 1994, one very important aspect of the UNFCCC is that it is almost entirely consensus based – powerful countries cannot simply dictate what needs to be done. At the time of writing not even a majority consensus is contemplated, it has usually to be all or none. This means that there is continually striving to reach consensus between the 195 countries (parties in UN terms) that have ratified the Convention – an endeavour that is a like trying to herd cats, on a global scale. Stoicism and active patience are virtues at UNFCCC.
Time and time again, I was amazed that organisers and conference chairs didn’t respond to some of the more off-the-wall comments, opinions and suggestions of delegates with a terse “are you having a laugh?”
Moving on, this year I also learned about market mechanisms and non-market mechanisms used for trying to address climate change.
Market mechanisms are used primarily by developed countries and developed politico-economic unions to embrace market oriented mechanisms that lead to reductions in the emission of greenhouse gases. The most well-known of these schemes is the cap and trade mechanism. Basically this sets emissions caps for certain industries, and allows the buying and selling of carbon credits by those who gain credits for being under their set limit, which can then be sold to those who exceed their cap in emissions. That’s the simplified version, but of course it is more detailed and nuanced than that. But to reiterate as simply as I can, you get credits for coming in under the bar, and you buy credits to offset the fact that you’ve failed to come in under the bar, and are heading for the naughty step, unless of course you can buy get-out-of-jail credits from someone else.
Another market mechanism is oriented towards gaining carbon credits by sponsoring emissions reduction projects in developing countries. This is another way for businesses to compensate for their excess emissions, by reducing emissions in developing countries. There are more initiatives and market oriented mechanisms on the table, and more coming down the line, but I will try to keep this brief.
In this way inefficient wood burning cookers in Africa and elsewhere can be replaced with lower carbon footprint means of cooking food, which of course allows the western world to continue the growth in the use of home wood burners, not for cooking but for, well, just because.
In my involvement with the UNFCCC I learned about mitigation (in terms of avoiding the negative effects of climate change) and adaption (living as best as one can with negative effects of climate change). The chasm that separates mitigation and adaption, is comparable to that seen in the economics of developed and exposed countries. Maybe this is a sophisticated and modern reflection of an old song about social injustice:
It’s the same the whole world over.
It’s the poor what gets the blame.
It’s the rich what gets the pleasure;
Ain’t it all a bloomin’ shame.
I also learned much more about the science. From the first principles of global warming mechanics to the extensive work of the IPCC. It still amazes me how climate change, even at the most trivial level, is misrepresented, which of course feeds the bias of the climate change deniers. But that’s pretty much par for the course in the world today. It’s like stating that Germany won the last football world cup only to be met with a response of “that’s what you claim, but can you prove it?” Which is probably not as bad as a response along the lines of “you can prove anything with facts and science, can’t you”.
I learned far more about alternative opinions, the thinking outside the box, the pushing the envelope and the opening up of the kimono – what a dreadful expression that is. Most of it looked to me like a higher form of procrastination, but at least it gets people talking.
I also learned about how emissions data is submitted to the UNFCCC and how it is used.
One of the difficulties I came up against in here was the fact that there is no equivalent of Generally Accepted Accounting Principles and International Reporting Standards when it comes to the submission and reporting of greenhouse gas emissions, which is a pity, because if there is one thing that is urgently needed it is a clean and highly transparent emissions submissions, reporting and analysis regime.
I learned about the politics and economics of climate change. This is one of my favourite areas, because it completely expands the debate on climate change and what should be done, to truly global levels, where the formulation of good strategy to combat climate change is paramount.
For me, one of the most influential contributions to the climate change debate was an article by Geoff Mann and Joel Wainwright titled “Climate Leviathan”. As it states in the synopsis, the article posits a basic framework by which to understand the range of political possibilities, in light of the response of global elites to climate warming and the challenges it poses to hegemonic institutional and conceptual modes of governance and accumulation. This article sparked a lot of debate, which is still ongoing. I sincerely think that the article and the subsequent debate it provoked is well worth paying attention to.
I learned new things about multi-lateral negotiations. In particular there was an interesting talk from Kai Monheim, who outlined his thesis which researched the role that process management plays in the successful conclusion of multilateral negotiations, and with a particular focus on international climate negotiations.
I am sceptical about such claims, especially considering the actors involved (Lars Rasmussen, Barack Obama, Angela Merkel, Charles Windsor, Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales, etc.) in both the big climate change conferences in Copenhagen and then subsequently in Cancun (and the fact that during Copenhagen we had the USA spying on everyone, as is their want, didn’t help matters one little bit), even though it was a well-argued case.
Copenhagen was declared a disappointment – more apt terms are not in the vocabulary of multilateral negotiations – whereas Cancun was declared a success. If anything, the Cancun conference was even worse than the Copenhagen conference, but no one was willing to vote themselves out a job, so a success was declared, fortunately this was not on the deck of a Nimitz class aircraft carrier.
I also learned about the Meat Atlas in a fantastic talk by Christine Chemnitz and the UNFCCC’s own Green Team. What is the Meat Atlas, you may well ask? Well, it’s a report (published annually by the Heinrich Böll Foundation and Friends of the Earth Europe), and it is elegant, simple and free, even though a lot of professional and exhaustive research and analysis went into it. Basically it started off as a study of German’s meat eating habits, the supply chain for meat, and its impact on the environment. As it was such a resounding success in Germany, its scope was expanded and it was translated into English.
Magda Stoczkiewicz, director of Friends of the Earth Europe, argues in the report that “nothing epitomizes what is wrong with our food and farming more than the livestock sector and the quest for cheap and plentiful meat.”
Also at the brown bag lunch, Christiana Figueres talked about how and why she had become a vegetarian, not out of a sentimental pity for the animals, but out of concern for the environment. I did of course diligently follow the lead and I honestly tried to… Oh, look! Steak tartar?
So, after all that I have written here, the trillion squillion dollar question remains… is Climate Change for real?
You bet your derriere it is, and as Christiana Figueres (Executive Secretary, UNFCCC) speaking at Chatham House, put it:
“It seems to me that the Fifth Assessment Report (of the IPCC) actually ends at least two debates. It ends the debate on science because we have 200 lead authors putting together the work of 600 scientists who went through 9,000 peer-reviewed publications and answered 50,000 queries. The statistics speak for themselves. There is no longer a question on the science”
And she went on to state:
“And that working group report ends the debate on “should we act?” There is no doubt that we have to act and that we have to act now. Now is the time. It is not tomorrow. It is not the day after tomorrow. It is now. Now is the time”
Another important take-away that I got from my involvement with the UNFCCC, and one that needs to be reiterated, is that climate change is quite probably the biggest threat facing humankind today, and the lives and communities of many people are dependent on an effective and sustainable global response to a global threat, a real and present threat that needs to be addressed today, not tomorrow, or the next day, but today.
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