Our Planet in the Balance: The Warsaw Climate Talks

Renee Feltz Dec 17, 2013

WARSAW, Poland — “Who rules Poland? The coal industry or the people?” was the question posed by a massive banner Greenpeace activists draped on the side of a drab office building in downtown Warsaw, not far from where the second week of the United Nations’ annual climate convention was just getting under way in mid-November. It was a reasonable question, given that Poland had decided its duties as host of an event where thousands of delegates from nearly 200 countries had come to forge a global agreement on how to tackle climate change did not bar it from simultaneously hosting the annual meeting of the World Coal Association. 

The answer was driven home inside the city’s hulking national stadium, where delegates huddled amid hundreds of corporate lobbyists. Some of them used “organic” pen and notebook sets provided by the Polish Energy Group (PGE), which operates two huge coal mines and about 40 coal-fired power plants — one of which is the largest source of CO2 emissions in Europe. PGE was among 11 corporations invited to officially partner with the Polish government in presenting the event. They got privileged access in exchange for providing “substantial support” — and the greenwashing opportunity? Priceless. 

As a member of the Democracy Now! production team that covered COP 19 in Warsaw both outside and wherever the media were allowed inside, I witnessed how this corporate mindset eroded an already weak agreement that is intended to succeed the 1995 Kyoto Protocol in two years (see sidebar). 

During the first week of the summit Typhoon Haiyan blew ashore in the central Philippines, leveling swaths of the country with record-setting 200mph winds. Advocates for addressing climate change noted that warmer temperatures “load the dice” and make such extreme weather events more likely. But any sense of urgency this created in the negotiations to reduce global emissions of carbon dioxide (the main heat-trapping gas responsible for increasing worldwide temperatures) was squashed by representatives of the largest polluting nations. 

After Naderev “Yeb” Saño, the Philippines’ lead climate negotiator, delivered an emotional speech to delegates, he was greeted by youth activists who held up a banner referring to fatalities from last year’s devastating Typhoon Bopha, which hit the Philippines as well. The banner read, “2012 Bopha 1,067; 2013 Haiyan 10,000+?” The head of the U.N. Climate Convention, Christina Figueres of Costa Rica, responded by banning three of them from the rest of the talks. 

As negotiators got back to work, they struggled to agree on how to limit the increase in global temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius (or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above the pre-industrial average, the tipping point at which scientists believe further temperature increases could become irreversible. When asked what a four-degree increase would look like for the Philippines, Saño said, “It would be catastrophic for my country. That means collapse of our ecosystems, massive droughts, more intense tropical cyclones. I just can’t imagine how we will secure our food sources and our water sources.” 


The impacts of climate change will be unevenly distributed. It’s widely expected that developing nations in Africa, Asia and Latin America will suffer the greatest harm, even though it is wealthier developed nations that have poured most of the carbon emissions into the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution began 200 years ago. 

During COP 19, developing countries saw little accomplished on the key issue of “loss and damage” — recognition that the U.N. Climate Convention must provide a way to rebuild the lives destroyed by extreme weather. U.S. negotiators stuck to talking points in a leaked memo that reframed the issue as one of “blame and liability.” As lead U.S. envoy Todd Stern put it, “We don’t regard climate action as a matter of compensation or reparations or anything of the kind.”

Stern’s comments drew stern a stern rebuttal from Tosi Mpanu Mpanu, former chair of the Africa Group in U.N. climate change negotiations. “Today Africans have to go through adverse effect of a global phenomenon that they didn’t create,” said Mpanu Mpanu, who is from the Democratic Republic of Congo. “It’s actually creating not only droughts, floods; it’s creating conflicts, because people have to go further and further to get some water, and other people are not just welcoming them.” 

At one point, all of this prompted Bolivian Rene Gonzalo Orellana Halkyer, head negotiator for the G77 group of developing nations, to lead a walkout of a key meeting. By the closing plenary, delegates had approved a mechanism for loss and damage, but it was mostly limited to funding future efforts at adaptation to climate change, and the funding for such efforts was largely pulled from existing aid pledges. The issue of equity saw a setback as well, with industrialized nations that have been polluting since the mid-1800s reframing it to insist that less-developed countries cut their emissions at an “equal” rate.

Those who follow the U.N.’s annual climate conferences — this is the 19th so far — won’t be surprised that the outcome of negotiations in Warsaw was a further weakened foundation for a final agreement set to be voted on in 2015, which then has to be approved by the signatory countries, meaning it must get through the U.S. Congress. Americans get to compare notes with other countries next September during a side summit called by U.N. General Secretary Ban Ki Moon that will take place during the U.N. General Assembly. 

Next year’s annual gathering of climate delegates, lobbyists, NGOs and press takes place in Latin America, and will unfold in two phases. While Peru hosts the actual summit, Venezuela will host a pre-COP dedicated largely to giving voice to civil society. 

“We have been seeing this tendency to make this a business and market profit convention, sadly taking advantage of the pollution that some are causing,” said Claudia Salerno, the lead climate negotiator for Venezuela. “So, Venezuela next year will host the first formal social consultation of every single social movement involved in the climate change agenda. For the first time, instead of having ministers listening to each other … we are going to have [them] listen to their people about what is the kind of ambition and the kind of agreement the world wants to have.”

Renée Feltz is a producer at Democracy Now!.


Our Planet in the Balance: The World We Will Inherit, by Anjali Appadurai

Our Planet in the Balance: Rev. Billy Ready to Create a New Buzz, by John Tarleton

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