Tue, Nov 21, 2017 - Page 9 News List

Keeping it real: Action key as UN climate talks battle to stay relevant

Negotiations are proving not enough in a world where carbon emissions will rise by 2 percent this year alone

By Marlowe Hood  /  AFP, BONN, Germany

There was a telling moment at the 23rd edition of the UN climate talks that underscored both the life-and-death stakes in the fight against global warming, and how hard it is for this belabored forum to rise to the challenge.

Twelve-year-old Timoci Naulusala from Fiji, a nation disappearing under rising seas, was delivering a testimonial to ministers and heads of state with crisp English and irresistible charm.

Suddenly, describing the devastation wrought by Cyclone Winston last year, his words became measured, his voice hushed.

“My home, my school my source of food, water, money, was totally destroyed,” he said. “My life was in chaos. I asked myself: Why is this happening? What am I going to do?”

The answer to Timoci’s first question has become frightening clear: climate change.

With only a single degree Celsius of global warming so far, the planet has already seen a crescendo of deadly droughts, heatwaves and super-storms engorged by rising seas.

“Climate change is here. It is dangerous, and it is about to get much worse,” said Johan Rockstroem, executive director of the Stockholm Resilience Center, a climate change research center.

The 196-nation Paris Agreement, adopted in 2015, urges the world to cap the rise in temperature at “well below” 2°C, a goal barely within reach and which still may not save Fiji and dozens of small island states.

Bangladesh and other countries with highly-populated delta regions are also at high risk.

Timoci’s second question remains open: What is he, and by extension the world, going to do?

At first, the answer — laid out in the 1992 UN Convention on Climate Change — seemed straight-forward: Humans must stop loading the atmosphere with the greenhouse gases that drive global warming.

The successful repair of the ozone hole suggested a way forward: an international treaty, but it took a quarter of a century to get one, in 2015, and even then it is woefully inadequate: Voluntary national pledges to curb carbon pollution would still allow the global thermometer to go up 3°C, a recipe for human misery on a vast scale.

Since Paris, the UN climate talks — known to participants as “COPs,” or Conferences of the Parties — have focused on working out an operational handbook for the treaty, which goes into effect in 2020.

However, as the years tick by, the byzantine bureaucracy — where hundreds of diplomats can argue for days over whether a text will say “should” or “shall” — has struggled to keep pace with both the problem, and what some negotiators call “the real world.”

“What is at stake here is the relevance of the COP process,” Nicaraguan chief negotiator Paul Oquist said, lamenting a point of blockage and the generally slow pace. “We cannot risk becoming more and more irrelevant with each meeting.”

The UN climate process risks falling out of step in two key ways, experts suggest.

One is in relation to the unforgiving conclusions of science, which show that the window of opportunity for avoiding a climatic cataclysm is rapidly narrowing to a slit.

This year’s climate talks began with negotiators learning that carbon emissions — after remaining stable for three years, raising hopes that they had peaked — will rise by 2 percent in 2017, a development one scientist called “a giant step backwards for humankind.”

Negotiations were also reeling from US President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out from the Paris Agreement. The US sent envoys to the meetings, but White House officials and energy company executives hosted a pro-fossil fuel event on the conference margins.

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