Thoughts from Lima (#4): Prof. John Sweeney reports on the COP20 UN Climate Conference

It is sometimes hard to get your head around the dramatic change in policy regarding climate change which President Obama initiated on the commencement of his second term in office. His Secretary of State John Kerry has made this a personal priority and his speech to the COP on Wednesday was radically different from the equivalent addresses given during the Bush era, and even during Barack Obama’s first term. Just a flavour of what Kerry said in his brief visit is striking:

“Measured against the array of global threats that we face today – and there are many – terrorism, extremism, epidemics, poverty, nuclear proliferation – all challenges that know no borders – climate change absolutely ranks up there equal with all of them…..Only those nations who step up and respond to this threat can legitimately lay claim to any mantle of leadership and global responsibility. And yes, if you’re a big, developed nation and you’re not helping to lead, then you are part of the problem……I know how angry some people are about the predicament they’ve been put in by big nations that have benefitted from industrialization for a long period of time. I know the debates over who should do what and how hard fought and how complex [the problem is]. But the fact is we simply don’t have time to sit around going back and forth about whose responsibility it is to act. Pretty simple, folks: It’s everyone’s responsibility; because it’s the net amount of carbon that matters, not each country’s share…..Now certainly, the biggest emitters, including the United States – and I’m proud that President Obama has accepted that responsibility – have to contribute more to the solution.”

Such sentiments, combined with the recent US-China agreement have boosted the chances of a global accord next year. Today the Plenary was packed with big names to reiterate the responsibilities resting on the shoulders of the negotiators. The President of Peru, The UN Secretary General, Laurent Fabius the former Prime Minister of France, Al Gore the former Vice President of the USA and Felipe Calderón the former President of Mexico all gave stirring addresses. But somewhat surprisingly it was Senor Calderón who was most impressive. Having tackled the drugs cartel in Mexico during his Presidency, the challenge of climate change is one he has taken to with great gusto, most recently with another key individual Lord Nicholas Stern who himself address the conference earlier in the week.

After the intensity of the morning, things went strangely silent in the afternoon. After probably the hottest morning of the week, the buzz of activity of 10,700 participants largely disappeared. The silence was not even broken by the odd helicopter overflight from the nearby army base which had drowned out some sessions for a brief time in the morning. Only sporadic noise emanated from a few energetic young American and Canadian students singing and chanting against the proposed pipelines bringing hydrocarbons from the tar sands of Canada to the cities of the eastern US. But elsewhere things were unusually quiet. Was it that the negotiators were deeply closeted away in several rooms bashing out the remaining obstacles to an agreement? Or were they getting some sleep in advance of the coming marathon sessions tomorrow and possibly Saturday? Little in the way of definitive news is publicly available and the schedule posted for tomorrow is very vague. But the crunch is undoubtedly coming.

John Sweeney

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