Lima (COP 20) 2014
Report #3, Commentary on some events from Days 6 through 8 of the UN climate summit.

Report #3
December 8th through 10th, 2014
By David Simpson and Jane Lapiner

Commentary on some events from Days 6 through 8 of the UN climate summit.

If rhetoric were effective action, the world would indeed have been saved on day seven of the 2014 UN climate change COP 20. This was officially the first day of the High Level negotiations and it was peppered, after a brilliantly staged Cirque de Soleil-like Peruvian dance confection, by brief impassioned speeches from leaders of many nations, especially smaller ones. Collectively, these leaders or delegates lay down a thick coat of language—the unique palaver of climate change consultation—urging that the leaders of the world struggle to achieve ambitious targets in the final product that will be issued here sometime this coming weekend and will be forwarded on to Paris for COP21 next December.

All day long, dimly heard words and sentence fragments gurgled and ran brook-like from distant microphones or numerous monitors placed throughout this transitory campus. In the contemporary architectural style for huge convention or conference level-venues, pretty much the whole edifice that holds or walls off the parts of this event from others, and its numerous plenary halls, conference rooms, cafeterias or booths are made of fabric, poster board or varieties of plastic that can be easily reorganized or differently configured to meet the needs of the next event. It definitely loans the whole scene the feeling of the provisional or even makeshift, the pre- engineered. Climate politics as Dumbshow? One hopes not, but there is a backlog of past experience.

If at past COPs there has been a puppet master at work here, a wizard behind the screen pulling levers, shifting realities in the name of quiet but ultimate control, it is the United States, personified by Special Envoy, Todd Stern, Chief of the U.S. negotiating team 

Mr. Stern should not be confused with Lord Nicholas Stern, widely lauded economist with the London School of Economics, who played a dubious role here yesterday (Dec. 8th) apparently shilling for the coal industry. He was a panelist at an event organized by the International Emissions Trading Association (IETA) a bastion of commercial wishful thinking that perennially pitches a few tricky capitalist curve balls at these COPs. Lord Stern yesterday was one of five panelists, including a top level Shell executive and the CEO of a large Canadian energy corporation. Together, they made a case for a low-carbon, as opposed to a no-carbon, future. Stern’s title for his contribution was “Why be Satisfied with a No-Carbon Energy System in the Future When You Can Have a Low Carbon System Now?” The curve ball in this conceptualization is that it only works in conjunction with Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS). This technology has not yet proved itself out and no one has any idea of the unintended consequences of pumping vast amounts of gas down old oil wells or coal shafts. It just doesn’t sound healthy or lasting or dare I suggest, ecologically sound. In fact, it comes perilously close to that Strangelovian category of techno-fix known as Geo-engineering. This category is composed of very large, fabulously costly solutions like de-acidifying the ocean chemically or shooting salt crystals from giant cannons into the stratosphere above the arctic to refract the hot sunlight. Clean Coal really means: “Put your dirt in the hole! Millions and millions of tons of it.” Oil leases are going to be commercially viable again for their carbon storage space, new life for an old dog! 

Mr. Todd Stern is another cup of tea altogether, a man seemingly capable in the past of sticking a knife in the back of climate hope with the subtlety and deftness of a trained assassin. His ability to turn phrases with bad news buried in them approaches the poetic. Todd’s long, sepulchrally grey visage, so thin it could slice cheese, seems to be increasingly at odds with his tone, which is not exactly light and folksy but over the years has developed a slight, not unpleasing hoarseness, a mildly soothing burr. As the years role by, Stern’s press conferences have evolved from being outright maddening to overt yawners from which less and less is expected except by those who know the pleasures of parsing Stern’s lines for their cryptic gems. 

This time, on Tuesday, Stern’s and the U.S.’s first press conference of the COP was par for the course. The Japanese last week had already provided the gold standard for evasiveness and disinformation when six members of their delegation sat before a crowd of reporters who asked pointed questions—a few about why their country had applied to the new Green Climate Fund to help finance construction of new coal burning plants in Indonesia. When word reached the UN climate secretariat, denials of prior knowledge flew hot and heavy.

The leader of the Japanese delegation was a stony-faced character named Hideaki Mizukoshi, Deputy Director General for Global Issues at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs whose English challenged listeners and whose terse responses were close to insulting. One wonders how tinny is the Japanese ear or are they just hiding behind age-old cultural barriers? Comparatively, old-hand Stern was a river of clarity. He claimed, with some accuracy, that the U.S. position going into the negotiations was strong after Obama’s announcement last month of a bilateral deal with China. This act in which the US promised to reduce its CO2 emissions 26 to 28% from 2005 levels by 2025 and China promised it’s emissions would peak by 2030 has been widely lauded as a crucial step towards trust and effective action. 

Mathematically speaking, this in itself is too little, too late but many serious climate hands are quietly sympathetic with the deal. It at least is somewhat disarming for the political right in the US which has always held up China’s secrecy and reluctance to commit as reason why the US should, in turn, avoid significant commitments to cut emissions. In light of the unseemly adolescent rush to the bottom that too often ensues, one is glad that China has thrown in and bilaterally with the US to boot.

At Tuesday’s press conference, Stern’s most controversial suggestion was that the old Annex I and Annex 2 breakdowns, in which the wealthy nations are expected to throw more into the collective pot, were antiquated. Established in l991, the basic breakdown has been the basis of the Common but Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR) distinctions made since. It’s “time to move along” Stern suggested, but qualified that statement with the suggestion that “we (the US) are for differentiation”, meaning he understands that there are indeed different responsibilities for the rich and poor countries. 

Later in the high-ministerial second week of the UNFCCC conference it became apparent that the US and Japan were fighting together in the all-important ADP (Ad hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action) dialogue to exclude any mention or consideration of “adaptation” or “loss and damages”, two categories being discussed at the highest level that developing nations urgently want and need funded. 

Today, US Secretary of State, John Kerry shows up to add weight and offer guidance, briefly, to the US delegation’s position. Officially he will pontificate on the subject of “Climate Change, A Test of Global Leadership.” Who knows where this might lead? 

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