A massive, collective moral failure of historic consequence

‘…if we fail, future generations will not and should not forgive those who ignore this moment, no matter their reasoning. Future generations will judge our effort not just as a policy failure, but as a massive, collective moral failure of historic consequence.’
John Kerry, Secretary of State, United States, at COP20

A speaker noted that climate change was like an ancient religious text. You can interpret it in different ways, depending on your persuasion. In a similar vein, depending on one’s selection of COP20 sessions to attend, it was possible to construct differing narratives of how well the world was responding to climate change.

The sessions organized by countries and NGOs understandably trumpeted the wonderful work that they were undertaking. I could have thought that the climate change problem had already been solved. Countries are developing highly efficient and sustainable eco-cities. Renewable energy capacities are being ramped up at the expense of fossil fuels. Forests are being restored on a large scale, in partnership with local indigenous communities. Women and youths are the new climate warriors, improving the resilience of their communities. Even the fossil fuel industry is turning green with advances in carbon capture and sequestration to negate its carbon impact. In sum, we are well on our way back to the Garden of Eden.

However, sitting in the ‘official’ sessions to negotiate the COP20 decision text, one would think that the war had already been lost even as negotiators were battling over punctuation marks. The gulf between developed and developing countries seemed unbridgeable. Depending on which side of the fence one is on, either the developed are not taking responsibility for the climate mess we are in, or the developing countries are being bloody minded in insisting on a pound of flesh for historical emissions that happened before the science is known.  Either way, trust and generosity are in short supply.  Effective coordinated climate action is remote. Coupled with the pessimistic prognoses of scientific sessions, climate disasters are inevitable.

While it is usually safer to bet on a medium outcome, I cannot help but sink towards the negative narrative as the week progressed.  The negotiations were painful to watch. There was much re-iteration of positions but little actual bartering of interests. Not everyone was there to make a deal.  The negotiators’ interventions were often formulaic:  a)  start with some banal appreciation of the co-chairs’ efforts, b) express willingness to be flexible and supportive of the draft, c) note that however, there was an issue that was extremely important to the negotiator’s country, and d) propose only a minor addition to the draft text.  And of course the addition was typically contentious and unacceptable to many other parties.  In the absence of agreement, the proposed addition becomes yet another option in the text for subsequent deliberation.  Cycles of these interventions put the negotiations on a divergent path and the draft document quickly grows in complexity and length.

As of Saturday evening, about a day after the COP was to have concluded, there was still no agreed decision statement. And COP20 was supposed to have been relatively straightforward and uncontentious!  Even if somehow COP20 delivers on a decision this weekend, the progress towards an agreement at COP21 is modest.

An absence of a global climate agreement does not mean that nothing will be done.  Countries will still undertake mitigation measures that make domestic sense, e.g. anti-pollution measures with coincidental carbon reductions.  Conversely, a successfully concluded agreement at COP21 does not mean that we are safe. Given the difficulties faced by the UNFCCC negotiations, the agreement will likely be weak and fall short of the mitigation needed to ward off 2 degree celsius of warming. Going ahead, achieving an agreement will be increasingly difficult as the process becomes more unwieldy with more issues added to the potential agreement.

In the meantime, we get inured to increasingly dire updates from climate scientists.  It may be the case that certain tipping points had already been breached. For example, a session warned that even a 1% melting of deep ocean methane hydrate is enough to push warming to 4 degree Celsius.

Given that COP20 is hosted by Peru, an oft heard question among delegates is ‘will you visit Machu Picchu?’. A delegate noted that when visiting the ruins of past civilizations, it is worth reflecting on how mismanagement of natural resources was often a factor in the decline of once glorious empires.  Earth will eventually recover from anthropogenic climate disasters in geological timescales. Human civilization as we know it may not.  Several millennia in future, archaeologists may well be stumped by ruins of our climate ravaged cities.  It will be a mystery to them why a civilization that had the means to avoid impending devastation chose not to act.


About David Cheang

David is a second year Master of Environmental Management student with an interest in how global climate action could be framed to be better aligned with individual countries’ domestic political priorities. Prior to joining the Duke program, David was a civil servant with stints in economic development, water resource management, macro-economic research and organizational development.