Things I have learnt since being at the Paris climate talks

Things I have learnt since being at the Paris climate talks

Date: 3 December 2015

It’s big, it’s dizzying and it’s inside an enormous aircraft hangar. Everyone seems to run around in a constant frenzy, people are dressed up as polar bears and penguins and handing out bars of carbon-neutral chocolate and big fancy industry booths from many different sectors are loudly proclaiming themselves to be THE solution to the world’s problems. And then in the midst of the circus are a series of rooms where representatives from over 190 different countries are hammering out the international response to the greatest threat that humanity faces.

The COP is such a big and complicated beast that it’s almost impossible to make a definitive statement of what’s going on – never has an elephant been groped by so many different blind-folded people. So here’s a smattering of what I’ve picked up since I’ve been here. For something that’s more thorough and comprehensive, I’d recommend the regular briefings from Third World Network, and for a more accessible take, the daily Storify round ups from Climate Justice Info.

  • If you actually believed the speeches of world leaders at the start of the talks, you would think that we could all go home because the problem was pretty much solved already. This rhetoric/reality disconnect was perhaps felt most keenly with our Prime Minister David Cameron asking “what we would have to say to our grandchildren if we failed,” while his government seems to be hell-bent on systematically running the renewables sector into the ground. If I was sat on Grandpa Dave’s knee, I’d definitely have a few questions to ask him about that one.

  • Civil society organisations are being pushed out of the talks more and more. Apparently this is a trend that has carried over from the last Bonn intersessional meeting. Previously when the various working groups of negotiators were meeting to hammer out aspects of various texts, civil society observers were invited unless some of the parties specifically requested that they weren’t. Now it seems that more and more it’s a de facto position that these sessions are closed to NGO observers. It makes the elephant groping situation even more acute, and raises the question what the role of civil society is actually for if it doesn’t get to see what’s actually happening. Some people argue that the presence of civil society isn’t to actually input or influence the talks, but to just add legitimacy to whatever’s cooked up between governments and business lobbyists.

  • There’s a huge spectrum of different NGOs involved in the negotiations and some of them can be pretty shady! At one end of the spectrum, you have a series of NGOs are happy to take part in side events alongside disreputable corporate partners promoting all manner of dubious false solutions like Climate Smart Agriculture and carbon offsetting. There’s already muttering amongst some of the bigger and ‘less justice-based’ NGOs about what they will accept and promote as being a ‘good deal’ based less on the content of the deal and more on what they think their supporters need to hear. It’s really worth a careful examination of what any NGO has to say about the outcome of the talks as chances are there’s an agenda.

  • At the other end of the spectrum – huzzah for the frontline folks representing so hard in Paris. A much-needed breath of fresh air amidst the greenwash and the realpolitik and the corporatisation of the talks. I’ve been particularly impressed by the It Takes Roots to Weather a Storm, a delegation of over 100 leaders and organizers from US and Canadian grassroots and indigenous communities. They are speaking truth to power all over the shop and represent the cutting edge of progressive grassroots organising for climate justice and other NGOs should really be taking the opportunity to listen and learn.

  • This first week of the talks are all about negotiators agreeing to a revised version of the negotiating text that can be presented to the Parties tomorrow. There’s a frantic pace to the meetings and negotiations to get to this goal, and many countries from the global south have complained about not being able to represent and feed in to the multiple meetings take place simultaneously. The disparity in size between say, the US and the Small Island States negotiating teams is one of the many, fundamental and structural inequalities of the climate talks, especially in the context of additional challenges around translation and the dominance of English language. There’s also the backroom bullying – obviously impossible to say what’s happening behind closed doors, but with the way that Western might gets thrown around was evidenced by a leak that took place in the days before the COP started of a document from the US to select southern countries outlining how it thought the talks should progress.

  • There’s a depressing trend in the way that texts get negotiated for the good bits to get dropped in order to reach a compromise in what gets agreed on. For instance in the text negotiations around technology yesterday, they deleted “safe”, “gender responsive and human rights” in reference to technology. They did keep “socially and environmentally sound” despite attempts to delete socially.

  • That’s not to say that EVERYTHING IS CATEGORICALLY AWFUL. On Tuesday African heads of state launched the Africa Renewable Energy Initiative (AREI), through which the continent is expected to deliver at least 10 gigawatts of new and additional electrical installed capacity by 2020. France has already said it will invest two billion euros between 2016 and 2020, and other countries are expected to follow suit. The devil is always in the detail with climate finance, but making big steps forward on finance and technology transfer are of critical importance for any outcome to the talks to be successful. While this looks like a promising initiative, there are reports that negotiations around the rest of these issues have been going quite badly.

  • And inspiring, interesting things are happening outside of the confines of the conference centre. Yesterday I was privileged to be at the launch of the Leap Manifesto, a proposal for how Canada can boldly strike out on a rapid energy transition based firmly on principles of social justice and progressive coalition building.The Leap Manifesto proposes that Canada “can transition to a renewable-based economy in way that changes our economy for the better – achieving meaningful justice for First Nations, creating more and better jobs, restoring and expanding our social safety net, building a better food system, and reducing economic, gender and racial inequalities.”

    There are parallels in the UK with the Transition Towns movement, and the Zero Carbon Britain report, but this is embedded in a recognition and understanding of the social dynamics of inequality and historical responsibility. The manifesto was created through a collaborative process that was initiated by the team behind This Changes Everything film and movie, and involved trade unionists, First Nation representatives, migrant rights groups and faith groups as well as the ‘usual suspects.’ It may sound like pie-eyed idealism, but the extraordinary thing is the width of backing they have for the initiative. Speaking at the event yesterday was Hassan Yussuff, the president of the Canadian Labor Congress and one of the signatories to the manifesto. It’s hard to think of a figure in the equivalent position of power in the UK trade union movement signing up to such a visionary and transformational position.

There’s so much happening in Paris too outside the conference centre…. talks, art, actions and planning. We’ll be doing a similar blog in the near future that looks at all these too.