In wake of Philippines typhoon, climate change talks produce only squabbles, finger-pointing

In wake of Philippines typhoon, climate change talks produce only squabbles, finger-pointing

A young Filipino woman holding her child assesses the damage done to their home as a result of the unprecedented destructive force of Typhoon Haiyan. Climate change experts and the international community observe the horror from Warsaw. Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps.

On Nov. 11, delegations from across the globe met in Poland for the opening ceremony of the UN-sponsored Warsaw Climate Change Conference. On the same day half a world away, thousands of Filipinos were dead or dying, their communities destroyed by the most powerful storm in recorded history.

As Christiana Figueres, the conference’s executive secretary, addressed the world leaders and climate experts charged with crafting policies to mitigate carbon emissions, the Philippines began digging out from Typhoon Haiyan, which left nearly 1.2 million Filipinos homeless and desperate for aid that would not arrive for days. The destruction caused by Haiyan was a deadly example of the extreme weather events scientists warn will grow worse if carbon emissions continue unchecked.

Would the storm’s devastation be the impetus for meaningful progress within the international community toward a climate change resolution? Would the political gamesmanship that has marked climate talks finally turn into decisive action at these negotiations?

Unfortunately--and to the detriment of developing countries--the answer was, “No.”

With just two years until an emissions agreement is set to be signed in Paris, the Warsaw delegates didn’t budge from the anger, stubbornness and accusations that have marked these negotiations so far.

Environmentalist and author Joseph Zammit-Lucia contends that the only “achievement” of the Warsaw talks was the clear realization that no meaningful international agreement on carbon emissions would be signed anytime soon. In fact, he argues, the climate change negotiations have achieved very little since they began 18 years ago. But, why?

Negotiations pitched in the framework of achieving legally binding emissions targets were always likely to result in confrontation by pitching one country's interests against the other,” Zammit-Lucia wrote in The Guardian. “This generates antagonism and defensiveness rather than co-operation.”

Many delegations no longer come to these talks armed with constructive suggestions. Rather, some focus on pushing others to make concessions in their own particular interests while others simply want to make sure that nothing gets written that could harm their national interests."

The lack of cooperation among delegations was caustic to the entire negotiating process. Instead of salient discussion, the talks deteriorated into angry debate, distrustful reactions and finger-pointing. This was clearly evident with the dramatic “walk out” of a bloc of 132 countries--primarily poorer, less-developed nations--unhappy with the tabling of discussions surrounding climate change disaster compensation, which obviously affects poorer nations more acutely than wealthy countries. Climate change disaster compensation is the notion that developing countries would receive assistance from developed countries with the loss and damages associated with destructive storms, like Haiyan.

However, the gridlock could be lifted with this three-step solution:

  • The delegations must adopt a positive, cooperative attitude. Rather than focus on contentious emissions targets, delegations should emphasize the achievements they have made. What did each delegation do right to curb emissions? What challenges did they face? What did they learn? What do they have planned for the future? By sharing their experiences, each delegation brings tangible examples to the negotiating table for a constructive discussion.
  • Instead of focusing on emissions targets, the talks must center on the policies needed to achieve emissions goals. It’s futile to put targets in place when there is no pathway to reach them.
  • Leave the negotiating process to veteran diplomats and state departments, not technocrats with no experience with the nuances of international diplomacy.

Political jockeying and in-fighting must end. Time can’t wait for the next deadly storm of climate change. A unified, international strategy to prepare for the worst and respond to its aftermath -- as well as establishing achievable emissions limits -- can help reduce the destruction of super storms and prevent some of the heartache left in their wakes.

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