Guest Post By Jakob Lindaas, 2019-2020 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Atmospheric Science
Imagine planning a huge family reunion for two years and then having to abruptly change locations a month before everyone arrives. Adding to the chaos, your Aunt and Uncle, who were integral to many family reunions in the past, decide at the same time that they don’t want to attend or help out anymore. Under these circumstances, your family reunion may not go so smoothly, and could even descend into pandemonium and disarray!
The 25th annual Conference of Parties (COP25) happening next month [December 2 – 13, 2019], a global “family reunion” for 174 countries interested in slowing and stopping climate change, was faced with two destabilizing events within the span of 5 days earlier this month. First, the host of COP25, the government of Chile, decided to step down as host facing widespread unrest in Santiago. Then, within the same week, the President of the United States officially withdrew from the Paris Agreement, the landmark global agreement signed by 174 countries in 2015 at a previous Conference of Parties (COP21). How might these unfavorable development affect this year’s international climate negotiations, and our planet’s climate future?
Soon after climate change emerged as an international concern in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the United Nations established the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and created an annual meeting called Conference of Parties (COP). In these meetings, the nations of the world discuss the issue and negotiate agreements about what to do about climate change. Beyond agreeing that action should be taken, little progress was made between the 1990s and 2010s. In fact, during that time, global emissions of greenhouse gases continued their rapid rise. International perseverance started to pay off in 2015 though, when a consensus was reached on the ‘Paris Agreement’, under which all nations agreed to voluntarily reduce emissions and to help each other set more ambitious goals over time. While this was a huge step for coordinated international action on climate change, unfortunately we have since learned that the Paris Agreement by itself will not prevent significant warming that would likely harm billions of people around the world. In order to avoid this future, the global community of nations must continue to “rachet up” their commitments and actions slowing climate change. The annual Conference of Parties is a primary way for countries to hold each other accountable, push for more progress, and exchange practical knowledge about how to implement their commitments. Anything that disrupts this process threatens to slow progress on addressing climate change precisely when scientists are warning that we don’t have much time left to decisively act.
This context is what makes the events in Chile and the U.S. particularly concerning. Each COP is a gathering of more than 20,000 people from every corner of the globe, and so the logistics of hosting a COP are tremendously complicated. COPs move to a different location throughout the world each year, and the complexity of the security, physical layout, and the event logistics mean the host of each COP sets out to plan for their conference more than 2 years in advance. Likewise, citizen and government attendees often make their travel plans and reservations up to 12 months to a year before each one starts. All of this means that Chile’s decision to bow out as the host of this years COP only 1 month before it begins has caused concern about whether COP25 would still be held or how successful it might be in advancing progress towards ambitious climate goals if it is relocated.
Adding insult to uncertainty, the U.S. announcement that it is leaving the Paris Agreement delivered another blow to global optimism on meaningful climate progress this fall. Though it was expected from the Trump Administration, the U.S. is now the first and only nation to leave the Paris Agreement. This is especially significant in the context of the critical and pivotal role the U.S. played in securing the consensus that led to the 2015 Paris Agreement. Abdication of U.S. leadership on this critical global issue will have unforeseen ripple effects and consequences. For example, I attended COP23 in 2017, and it was already clear then that this U.S. retreat from climate leadership has emboldened other countries such as Saudi Arabia and Russia to stall progress at the negotiations.
Several days after Chile’s announcement in October 2019, Spain stepped in and offered to host COP25. After the UNFCCC accepted their offer, some of the initial fears of the COP being cancelled this year were quelled. The chaos and disarray to individual plans and logistics remains however. It seems likely that not all attendees planning to be in Chile for COP25 will be able to easily change plans to show up in Madrid less than a month from now. This could even affect nations with small diplomacy budgets and make their full participation in the negotiations more difficult. Full participation by all parties is critical to the success of any COP, and so the possibility of missing certain people from the conference may have tangible negative effects on the progress achieved. The challenges of moving a COP halfway across the globe in less than a month will be yet another adversity that the international community must overcome in its pursuit of real action to slow and stop climate change.
In summary, the impacts of the Chilean unrest and U.S. government’s decision on international climate policy and ultimately global climate change are not clear. There are good reasons to assume that the short-term and medium-term impacts will be to stymie global progress on climate policy. Some glimmers of optimism could shine through though. Adversity can rally a community towards more positive mutual action, and it is possible that the stress of planning an entire COP in less than a month will catalyze more collaboration and policy progress by all countries. Along these lines, we have already seen a coalition of U.S. cities, states, tribes, and businesses representing a majority of Americans take up the mantle of meaningful climate action since President Trump first declared his intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement in 2017. This coalition maintains strong connections with people and organizations throughout the world, and is committed to continuing to promote U.S. leadership on this issue. And lastly, future U.S. Presidents may choose to rejoin the Paris Agreement and to raise the ambition of the U.S. with respect to climate mitigation and adaptation. The global family of nations will reunite in a new location this December, and hopefully the relocation of COP25 and President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement will ultimately be small bumps in the road towards a safe, just, and healthy global climate future.