Doha Climate Talks: Not Lost, but Damaged

by Kit Vaughan, CARE International Director of Climate Change and Environment. Post was originally written for the Huffington Post Green Blog, and can be found here. You can follow more updates from CARE’s Climate Team on Twitter

Doha, Qatar (December 9, 2012)– Despite the seeming lack of progress at the latest UN climate negotiations in Doha, with many saying the two-week session again failed to deliver any substantive action towards a safer, more climate controlled world, we should not forget that something new and extraordinary took place this year within the walls of the Qatar National Convention Centre.

Sadly, the US did not address its continued and epic failure to lead. Neither did the grandstanding of the emerging super powers, such as China, India and Brazil, come to an end. Nor did developed nations agree to adopt significant new, and urgently needed, emissions reductions targets. New finance to grease the wheels of action on mitigation and adaptation was nowhere to be seen either.

Instead, what we witnessed was an almost unprecedented and united stand by the world’s poorest and most vulnerable countries, together with their developing country allies, to demand the establishment of an ‘international mechanism’ to address the significant and increasing loss and damage resulting from climate change impacts.

To clarify, a recent World Bank report and stark new estimates from science now confirm a trajectory of global warming of at least 4 degrees above the global average by 2100. Such a world is not compatible with sustainable development or equity. It is one of war, pestilence and increasing inequality.

Historic and increasing greenhouse gas emissions, and a collective ongoing failure to take action, mean we are now close to missing the opportunity to avert high degrees of climate change and the many impacts that go with it. Put simply: this is the new, third era of climate change loss and damage.

Clearly, taking urgent action to reduce emissions and help vulnerable communities to adapt to climate change where possible must be front and centre in national and global decisions about our common future. But, at the same time, we can’t ignore the scale and portent size of the problem, or that there will be cases where adaptation fails.

That’s why, globally, we need agreement on what should be done when a nation state, local community, or ecosystem’s adaptive capacity is exceeded, and becomes so broken or damaged by the multiple effects of climate change, such as sea level rise, that they cease to function or become extinct.

Discussion of what to do about such eventualities is not new. The small island developing states (SIDS), best characterized by the low lying and vulnerable islands in the pacific, first tabled the idea for an ‘international mechanism’ to address loss and damage under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1991. Then in 2008, in Poznan, the issue was raised again when governments presented a more concrete example of why such a mechanism is needed and how it would function.

At the same meeting, and whilst heading the climate adaptation team at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), I worked closely with three distinguished climate lawyers to start looking at these issues in more detail.

Our 2008 report, “Beyond Adaptation: the legal duty to pay compensation for climate change damage”, resulted in pressure from my US counterparts and many developed country negotiators. They stated – albeit wrongly – that such a report could drive the US out of the UN climate process altogether. That didn’t happen, but neither did the USA or other big emitters make a sincere effort to reduce emissions in order to curb the worst effects of climate change.

Now, some five years later in Doha, the issue of how to tackle climate change loss and damage has returned with such force that it took all of the developed countries almost completely by surprise. Developing countries managed to throw the US and the EU off balance and against the ropes, in part because the US and EU hadn’t done their homework, but also because this time, developing countries came prepared and were ready to fight with substance.

Civil society has been incredibly active on this issue. Our new report, Tackling the Limits to Adaptation, a joint effort by CARE, WWF and ActionAid and produced just ahead of the Doha conference, outlined the moral, legal and technical arguments and options for an international mechanism.

Negotiators used it extensively to frame their own text submissions and, in turn, the recommendations were used to develop an open letter to ministers, calling for urgent leadership to drastically reduce emissions, significantly scaled up support to help poor and vulnerable countries adapt where possible, and then, crucially, also to fundamentally recognize the need to establish an international mechanism to address loss and damage from climate impacts. The letter was signed by nearly 50 key civil society organisations.

These factors all helped the cause. However, ultimately, it was the overwhelming frustration and the united stand of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable countries, that have done so little to cause climate change but are being hit the hardest, spurred on by the political intransigence and severe failure of developed countries to reduce their emissions enough to limit climate damage, that finally broke the deadlock.

In the early hours of Saturday, developed countries caved in to the demands of a united front and agreed to text that provides the potential foundation for the establishment of an international mechanism to address loss and damage. Although we don’t know what will happen next, it’s still a genuine step forward.

As we move on from Doha, still disillusioned with the broader scale of action taken to tackle the root causes of climate change and help the most vulnerable adapt to it, we must remember the UN climate convention is only as good as the sum of its parts.

As such, we would be wrong to blame the process. Instead, we need to focus our attention on those countries that continually fail to take action and live up to their historical and current responsibilities.

Developed countries must now step up their game to kick-start the urgent transition to a low carbon and climate resilient world. It is their duty to invest in creating a safer and more stable world for all.

Image from stephenleahy.net

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