The Political Moment of Paris

David Gawith | December 1, 2015.

The 21st UN climate change conference opened today with the largest gathering of political power in history. In two parallel sessions which both ran more than three hours overtime nearly 150 heads of state and heads of government made statements to the conference. According to the Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC, Christiana Figueres, more than 20,000 official delegates are attending and more than 40,000 people are participating in the two week conference. Figueres felt the need to reassure attendees that security is on high alert given the concentration of leaders – suggesting that the venue was ‘maybe the safest place in France these days’.

  • 159 heads of state met in Paris
  • Largest meeting of world leaders since WWII
  • Negotiations have begun in earnest

Inviting leaders to speak at the start of the two week conference is a new approach – traditionally they have arrived in the final days. As explained by Professor Howard Barnsey, the aim this time is to avoid repeating the shambles in the final hours of the Copenhagen conference, which saw political leaders negotiating technical details that they simply weren’t qualified to navigate. In Paris, leaders are providing political impetus at the outset and leaving the details of the agreement for the experts to shape.

Family Photo of Leaders at COP21

“No leader here faces the burden I do.”

Beyond the sheer number of leaders, the gravity of the event was reflected in what they had to say. Many used their speaking slots to highlight the seriousness of what is at stake in Paris. In a deeply personal appeal, President Loeak of the Marshall Islands told the conference: “Everything I know and everyone I love is in the hands of those of us gathered here today.” Prime Minister Sopoaga of Tuvalu took a similarly personal tone, saying “our survival as a nation depends on the decisions we make at this conference… Just imagine you are in my shoes. What would you do? No leader here faces the burden I do.”

The urgency of our current situation was enunciated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India who suggested that “over the next few days we will decide the fate of this planet.” This same urgency was echoed in the speech by President Obama, who quoted the late Martin Luther King Jr. in saying “there is such a thing as being too late”. Obama addressed the conference unaided by notes – a rare occurrence even for him, and a clear sign of the diplomatic weight he is placing on this process.

Paying tribute to victims of terror

Most leaders chose to begin their addresses by acknowledging the pain of the attacks on the city two weeks ago, and conveying their solidarity with France. Chancellor Merkel and President Jinping both framed the conference as an act of defiance in the face of terrorism, while President Obama asked “what greater rejection to those who would tear down our world than marshalling the conference to change it?”

The President of the European Union, Mr Jean-Claude Juncker, mentioned the widely reported response of Parisian, Antoine Leiris, who lost his wife in the attacks but vowed to raise his son in defiant happiness. “Ensuring that child’s happiness is his responsibility” Mr Juncker continued, “ensuring a stable environment for children around the world is our responsibility.”

A number of leaders drew links between climate and insecurity, with Tuvaluan Prime Minister Sopoaga suggesting that the insecurity and mass migration we are facing now may only be an introduction to what we face in a world destabilised by climate change. A small number of leaders chose not to mention the attacks in their addresses, president Putin of Russia and Prime Minister David Cameron of the UK being notable examples. Putin and Cameron were also among the few leaders who made an honest attempt to observe their three minute speaking slots.

Many leaders also chose to frame the problem of climate change with reference to their children and grandchildren. President Áder of Hungary spoke of a recurring dream that he had been having set 20 years into a dystopian future in which he was answering questions from his grandchildren to which he was unable to find a comforting answer. “Could you have stopped all that has happened today? Why did you let this happen?”

“How can we argue it’s difficult when in London alone there are 5 trillion dollars under financial management?”

Prime Minister David Cameron took a remarkably similar approach, pointing out that “we would have to say to our grandchildren that it was all too difficult” but that our grandchildren would rightly ask “why was it so difficult?” Referring to the US$100 billion per year needed to fill the Green Climate Fund from 2020 onwards, Cameron asked “How can we argue it’s difficult when in London alone there are 5 trillion dollars under financial management?” President Obama added that “the next generation is watching what we do… we must create a world that is worthy of our children.”

Varying degrees of success

While much emphasis has been put on defining the overall objective of the conference in Paris, the specifics remain contested. Chancellor Merkel stressed that the task is nothing less than limiting global warming to below 2°C, while she acknowledged that this limit was already a concession for many countries. President Loeak of the Marshall Islands indicated that he could not go along with any agreement that makes the loss of his country inevitable.

There was also a notable difference in focus between developing and developed countries in terms of reference to the actually UN convention. Many developing countries explicitly mentioned the need to acknowledge ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ and respective capabilities. Prime Minister Modi suggested that “anything else would be morally wrong,” highlighting the need for India to meet the aspirations of 1.25 billion people. Leaders from developed countries often acknowledged differences in levels of development and abilities to reduce emissions, however rarely referred to the convention explicitly.

Developing economies without emissions

Developing countries also tended to emphasise adaptation and the need to address loss and damage, while developed country statements were heavily weighted towards mitigation. Despite these differences, there was a palpable sense of optimism in the statements that were made. There was a general understanding that the expectations for Paris, while insufficient to meet the ultimate objectives of the process, are at least achievable. Central to this optimism were examples of decoupling economic growth from carbon emissions. President Putin pointed out that Russia was able to double its GDP while exceeding its Kyoto targets. President Obama claimed that low carbon developments have helped to push the US economy to an all-time high. In his words “we have broken the old arguments of inaction.” Prime Minister David Cameron stated plainly that “what we are looking at is not difficult – it’s doable, therefore we should come together and do it.” In contrast, President Christian of Micronesia was more circumspect about these changes, saying “I heard someone today say that their economy had grown by their emissions had stayed flat. What I wouldn’t give to see those emissions dip over my lifetime.”

A new regime for climate negotiations

Qualifying this optimism was an acknowledgement that Paris represents a new regime as opposed to a final diplomatic objective in itself. The emissions reduction targets submitted so far will not achieve the ultimate objective of the process by anyone’s stated interpretation. Almost every leader spoke of the need to review process, with many suggesting a five year frequency, and some, including the president of the EU, explicitly referring to periodic increases of ambition. President Jinping of China summarised the mood saying that Paris is “not the finishing line but a new starting point.”

Monday the 30th of November was an unprecedented display of political multilateralism. Never before have so many political leaders been in the same place, stood for the same photo, and spoken on the issue. For the next two weeks, climate change is the focus of the world. And the impact of today’s political assembly will reverberate through the conference over the coming days. It may even result in a positive outcome. But the real task when listening to these political statements is how to distinguish substance from rhetoric. As President Tong of Kiribati asked the conference “are we truly ready to take the necessary steps in order to ensure that those on the front line will be able to continue to stay in their home?” Tong finished his statement with a plea: “let us give substance to the pledges being made.”

Photo credit: United Nations. The Verb is currently reporting live from the UN climate change negotiations in Paris. For a Spanish version, please go here

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