Conferences of the Parties, COPs, to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) are an annual venue for shaming the countries responsible for producing the greenhouse (GHG) gas emissions causing man-made climate change. Where else can the voices of Less Developed Countries (LDCs), those least responsible for global warming yet often suffering the greatest damage, present their case for all the world to hear and demand justice? They are joined by thousands of civil society representatives, not as parties to the decision making, but as monitors, castigators, and advocates for urgent, scientifically based, socially just measures to mitigate and adapt to the increasingly dire impacts of global warming. Despite COP 27 failing, like many before it, to live up to expectations, to those in anger, frustration, and despair questioning whether COPs are worthwhile, I say, Yes.
What happened at COP 27 to cause such questioning? Two things stand out. First, it was agreed to consider terms for funding Loss and Damage. Less Developed Countries (LDCs) have been trying to include this in the UNFCCC Treaty since it was framed at the Earth Summit in Rio 30 years ago. They had to storm the barricades – some refusing to take their seats unless compensation for Loss and Damage was put on the agenda. That all-night battle won, after two weeks and two extra days of difficult negotiations, ‘consideration’ of Loss and Damage funding was included in the closing agreement, the Sharm El-Sheikh Implementation Plan. This was an historic victory. But it was quickly seen as just a nominal win, ‘an empty bank account’ in the words of one African delegate. No details were specified – just shuffled off to a transitional committee for proposals to consider next year at COP 28.
Who will pay and how much? What criteria will define which events/countries qualify? What form will the financing take? How will it be administered and monitored? A Climate Finance facility for mitigation and adaption, a 13-year-old COP commitment to raise 100 B annually by 2020 still is not being fully funded. One for Loss and Damage could take years – despite the terrible losses suffered this year alone by millions in LDCs such as Pakistan and Somalia.
Second, and to many eclipsing that nominal accomplishment, commitments to cut GHG emissions were weakened. Alok Sharma, the President of COP 26, almost broke into tears last year when his drive for consensus to ‘phase-out’ unabated coal-fired power was opposed in the closing assembly by India unless the term was changed to ‘phase-down’. This year, India proposed that oil and gas also be phased down. That was quashed. At the last minute COP 27’s Egyptian host added the phrase ‘low emission’ to renewable energy in clauses calling for rapid reduction of greenhouse gases. Too late, negotiators recognized ‘low emission’ could condone more natural gas use. Mr. Sharma was scathing: “Emissions peaking before 2025 as the science tells us is necessary? Not in this text. Clear follow-through on the phasedown of coal? Not in this text. Clear commitment to phase out all fossil fuels? Not in this text. The energy text? Weakened in the final minutes.”
COPs tend to fail primarily because they are a voluntary association of the world’s nations trying to achieve consensus on how to deal with the epic tragedy of our existential climate crisis and the social injustice embedded in it. Burning fossil fuels energized the economies of Developed Countries (DCs) enabling their accumulation of wealth and power. But LDCs with minimal emissions records suffer as much or more from the impacts of global warming. What options does the world have to compel action on such injustice by those most responsible and with the necessary means?
A representative world government does not exist in which the disadvantaged majority might legislate and penalize failures to mitigate emissions or pay for adaptation and loss and damage. An attempt to create a legally binding agreement within COPs, in the Kyoto Accord, failed. It is hard to make polluters pay when their consent is required, and their greatest fear is a bottomless pit of legal liability. The United States, the largest contributor historically to emissions, never signed the Kyoto Accord. Others, like Canada, which ranks tenth, signed, then withdrew with impunity.
The ‘innovation’ of the 2015 COP 21 Paris Agreement was recognizing our only remaining option is to pressure/exhort national Parties to make their own voluntary commitments to the then least damaging, reasonably achievable goal – cutting GHG emissions to limit global warming to 2 degrees and preferably 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. Social pressure to ratchet up those commitments, called Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), is brought to bear every five, and now, every year. DC Parties are also praised and shamed into financing LDC’s to mitigate and adapt to climate change.
The sausage-making to prepare a final COP agreement, which only passes with the consent of all Parties at the final public session, is opaque, taking place behind doors supposedly closed to non-Parties. Drafts of clauses are prepared, revised, and distributed to Parties by the host, who may obfuscate issues and limit time for consideration. Any Party to the UNFCCC can square-bracket a word, phrase, or whole proposal, indicating lack of consent. All brackets must be removed for an item to be agreed. Skilled negotiators for the Parties engage in these critical word games. Some listen to fossil fuel lobbyists intent on subverting the emissions and financing goals of the UNFCCC. Petro states, and even Canada, include them in their delegations and pavilion events. Over 600 attended this year. “The influence of the fossil-fuel industry was found across the board,” said European Climate Foundation CEO Laurence Tubiana, an architect of the 2015 Paris agreement. “The Egyptian Presidency has produced a text that clearly protects oil and gas Petro-states and the fossil fuel industries—this trend cannot continue in the United Arab Emirates next year.”
Just days before COP 27 opened in Egypt, Greta Thunberg, the most prominent voice of the young being disinherited by climate change, announced she would not attend because of President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi’s incarceration and torture of over 60,000 political prisoners – many in jail since the Arab Spring uprisings in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in 2011. One of those prisoners, Alla Abd El-Fattah, went on a hunger strike to highlight oppression by the El-Sisi regime.
Boycotts or shunning, hunger and other forms of strike are effective shaming tools when wielded by individuals with great prestige and influence or by massive numbers. Thunberg’s rebuke of autocracy, which perverts efforts to achieve social justice, was heard around the world. Antonio Guterres, Secretary General of the UN, was widely quoted when he admonished, “we have our foot on the accelerator to hell.” Naomi Klein has suggested that when autocrats or Petro-states host COPs (their right as Parties to the UNFCCC), civil society groups should hold simultaneous counter-conventions elsewhere on five continents, which would have the added benefit of limiting GHG polluting air travel. That could be effective if sufficient attendance and media attention are generated. But it is hard to compete for the limelight drawn by world leaders with the power and money to effect change.
COP 28, to be hosted next year by the United Arab Emirates, an authoritarian Petro-state, should proceed in my view. Civilian groups should attend to keep close watch on who is proposing and deciding what and shout shame in front of the world’s media when false solutions are proposed. Moral suasion is humanity’s oldest method of sanctioning to elicit change. We are now dependent on it for the survival of life on earth.
Gail Greer is a Sociologist, former personal investment manager, and a member of SCAN!’s Education and Campaign and Platform Committees.
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