Canadian journalist recalls his UN climate talks experience

Photo: Derek (left) interviewing Stephen (right)
in Vienna. Credit: Renee Leahy.
By guest contributor Derek Leahy
With international climate change negotiations set to begin on December 1st in Lima, Peru, I decided to unearth an old unpublished story of mine. At the end of last year’s UN climate talks in Warsaw (also known as COP 19) I interviewed an internationally recognized Canadian environmental journalist to get in the inside scoop on what had happened.
The journalist’s name is Stephen Leahy. Stephen Leahy happens to be my father.
The following interview took place last year on a chilly December night in a dimly lit café in Vienna.
Derek: Lets cut to the chase – did we save the world at the UN climate change negotiations in Warsaw?
Stephen Leahy: One meeting is not going to solve the climate crisis. We are facing the biggest issue in history and one that encompasses everything – politics, economics, energy systems, etc. The UN climate talks are the most complicated negotiations humanity has ever attempted.
Although citizens around the world want action on climate change, unfortunately it is not a priority for most people and that is a big problem. Economic growth is still king. A grassroots approach is the only way to change this. Enough people need to be aware and engage politically and practically to meet the climate challenge.
This is not going to be like World War Two where governments told their populations they are going to war even though many people did not support the idea.  This one is going to be bottom up, not top-down.
We need a power shift. Democracy has been hijacked by interest groups. Democracy needs to be reclaimed and it will probably happen at the same time as we implement solutions for climate change.
Derek: Was any progress made in solving the climate crisis during COP 19?
Stephen Leahy: Up until COP 19 the climate treaty negotiations had two pillars: mitigation, and adaptation. Adaptation is about helping poorer countries adapt to climate change and install low carbon technology. Mitigation is reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in order to ensure the planet’s temperature does not rise more than 2 degrees.
A third pillar called loss and damage was added in Warsaw. Loss and damage is recognition and financial support for countries already suffering damages from climate change. This is something the Global South (developing nations) who have contributed least to climate change have wanted for awhile.
Countries such as the US, Australia, and Canada are petrified of any talk of compensation because of the political consequences.
Derek:  How did loss and damage become the third pillar if much of the developed world was against the idea?  
Stephen Leahy: It came down to the wire after thirty-six straight hours of negotiations. Flights were leaving, and everyone was exhausted. It was quite clear the talks would collapse without inclusion of loss and damage so the president of the COP called for a “huddle.” Yes, it is actually called a huddle.
The huddle took place at the centre of the conference room between the two parties in disagreement: the US representing many of the rich nations and Fiji speaking on behalf of everyone else. Both sides had all their supporters hovering around them. It was tense but still diplomatic. It did have the feel of a street fight or two people fighting over a pair of socks at the bargain bin though.   
Part of me was thinking you don’t make a major decision that affects the entire world this way.
In the end, the US and its supporters agreed to loss and damage on the condition the decision can be reviewed in three years.
Derek: And the other two pillars?
Stephen Leahy: Adaptation was actually supposed to be the focus in Warsaw. At COP 15 in Copenhagen (2009), nations agreed to establish a Green Climate Fund where developed nations would put in money ramping up to $100 billion US dollars per year starting in 2020. The fund will be operational as of 2014 but had no money.  COP 19 as the “finance COP” was supposed to figure out how the fund would be financed. It got nowhere.
Mitigation was pushed back to a meeting in New York in September 2014 at UN HQ. All nations are expected to make emission reduction commitments and provide plans on how they will be achieved.
Derek: Which countries were the ‘fossil fools’ at COP19? Who were the countries voted least helpful by NGOs at this year’s meeting?
Stephen Leahy: Australia didn’t seem to take the climate talks seriously and Japan reneged on their commitments to cut their emissions right in the middle of the talks.
The Polish government didn’t appear to be paying attention to the COP. They shuffled the Polish cabinet during the talks and the Environment Minister lost his job. Everyone was wondering if he was still the president of the COP (the environment minster of the host nation chairs the COP). In the end, he did remain president of the COP but there was some definite confusion.
Derek: And Canada? The infamous ‘Fossil of the Year’ for five years running?
Stephen Leahy: Canada had a really low profile this year. They were hiding behind the US for the most part. Literally. The head of the Canadian delegation was right behind the US during that showdown on the last day with Fiji.
Canadian students who were in Warsaw to observe the meeting told me they were shocked how little the Canadian environment minister seemed to know about climate change. Worse Canada’s head of delegation told them that 2 degrees C of warming is an aspirational target, not the danger line the vast majority of scientists agree we cannot cross.
Derek: NGOs walked-out on the second last day. They made it clear they were walking out because countries like Australia, Japan, Canada and others were not negotiating in good faith.  With the lack of progress should NGOs stop participating in the process?
Stephen Leahy: From a journalist’s perspective NGOs are extremely important. The media is not allowed inside the negotiation rooms. NGOs hold daily press conferences to let the media know what is happening on the inside.   
NGOs are there to bear witness and represent a large sector of society. There is no alternative process to reduce emissions globally so I think NGOs need to be part of the climate talks.
Derek: What do you as a journalist do at a two-week long COP?
Stephen Leahy: As a journalist you are caught in a deluge of information, reports and events surrounding the COP. The COPs attract many, many people who are tackling the climate issue on the ground or doing the latest science.
The danger is that there are so many great ideas floating around that you can get caught up in all the ideas and wind up not writing a thing. Conversely, you can also have too narrow of a focus that you ignore or miss out on the real story.
It is tricky balancing the 25 to 30 events and presentations held every day throughout Warsaw with time for writing. I just go with what I think is important and that no one else is likely to write about.
Derek: The UN climate talks have been dragged out over nineteen years now. Are the talks making any progress?
Stephen Leahy: Progress is far too slow and that’s because of politics and countries’ acting in their perceived short-term self-interest. That is the fault of the people we elect. Unfortunately, the public is not truly aware of the impacts of climate change today and tomorrow.
A possible treaty and the talks are also caught in the web of a capitalistic economic system that rewards companies for putting more and more carbon into the atmosphere. It’s a system that ignores future problems and where future generations have no rights. It is really no surprise that we are taking so much time to decide and agree upon a treaty.
In the end a climate treaty is just a piece of paper if no one lives up to it. Canada walked away from it’s commitments under the 1997 Kyoto climate treaty. In Warsaw Japan said it would ignore it’s obligations under the 2009 Copenhagen Accord.
That said, these negotiations do create a common framework for tackling climate change. Obviously, there is a lot of different cultures and countries involved. A treaty will not solve the climate crisis but it could help.
This was first published at the Sierra Club.
Derek grew up in the sleepy little town of Brooklin, Ontario in Canada.  After his experience as a backpacker in Copenhagen, Denmark during the UN Climate Change Summit in 2009, Derek decided it was time he stood up for the planet. Shortly thereafter he created International Stop the Tar Sands Day (international rallies to raise awareness about the destructiveness of the tar sands)  and plans on continuing to raise awareness about the tar sands and the need to act upon climate change this decade in the years to come.

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