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It happened shortly after a grim report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change confirmed with unparalleled certainty that climate change is real and is predominantly our fault as humans. It happened a week after the Philippines was struck by a devastating typhoon claiming over 5,000 lives. The type of storm that has become almost commonplace since the first ugly symptoms of global warming have begun to emerge. It happened at a time of increasing public pressure in affluent countries – not to mention outrage and civil unrest in greatly affected developing nations. “It” was the 19th annual UN international climate change conference, or “COP”: episode 19. It wrapped up in Poland on November 23, 2013.
By all rights, it should have been the most transformative, explosive and newsworthy COP ever. Instead, as the mainstream media slept through the critical events, a tragic amalgamation of disparate expectations, reckless apathy and capricious disagreements ensued in Warsaw. By failing to acknowledge the gravity of the threat and through the coy supposition that it’s appropriate to waste time settling diplomatic disputes to try and achieve a tainted interpretation of economic and environmental equality between nations with vastly different capacities, our leaders have failed us. They have ensured that – at a time of colossal urgency – it will be at least one more year before the world stands together to take action on its greatest threat to date.
The five events below are just a sampling of newsworthy twists and turns pertinent to North Americans that most of our mainstream media outlets and government agencies failed to recognize altogether.
Record Levels of Corporate Participation
Sponsored venues and presentations are nothing new to UN climate change conferences, but most delegates seem to have agreed that 2013 was exceptional in the extent to which traditionally climate action-opposed corporations played a role. Besides Polish oil company Grupa Latos, international brands like General Motors, Emirates Lotus and BMW, plus a host of others, were prominently on-display. While these corporations recognize climate change and claim to have their own internal goals for addressing the crisis, they also have a history of pushing back on federal regulations aimed at reducing emissions and carbon pollution. Critics say that the inclusion of corporate brands and representatives conveyed the wrong message in a venue designed to enable democratic governments to overcome the damage done by decades of harmful consumerism.
Representatives Fast in Protest
At last year’s COP, long-time Philippines negotiator Naderev Saño made headlines for his impassionedspeeches and pleas on behalf of developing nations struggling under water (sometimes literally) from the effects of climate change. This year, he started the conference without knowing whether his own family had survived the recent typhoon in his home country, creating a whole new level of frustration with global inaction. Saño lead a walkout on November 21, following a China-lead walkout of 132 countries protesting a lack of commitments for “loss and damage” funding from long-time polluters like Canada and the United States to developing nations that have only increased their carbon emissions in recent years. Saño’s protest was against that missing support from wealthy polluters, plus a general lack of ambition and financing from original signatories of the Kyoto Protocol. In addition to the walkout, Saño protested by fasting for the entire 13 days of the conference. In solidarity, hundreds of supporters joined him, including activists from the Philippines and the United States, plus Canadian Green MP Elizabeth May. A group of youth activists who supported the negotiator’s call to action and walked out with him were banned for the remainder of COP 19 for displaying protest banners a day before a planned – and approved – rally. If anyone stirred the emotions of media elite at the 2013 climate negotiations, it was Naderev ‘Yeb’ Saño, but sadly, even his well-earned, near-celebrity status among supporters got him lots of recognition among back-page columnists, and not the front-page headlines he deserved.
Environmental NGOs Left in Protest
The 132 developing nations and Yeb Saño’s faithful followers weren’t the only ones to exit COP 19 in disgust. Over 800 representatives of prominent nongovernmental organizations, including officials from Greenpeace, the World Wildlife Federation, Oxfam, Friends of the Earth and 350.org, staged a protest by leaving the conference on November 21. Many of them met nearby to develop plans for alternative action, unstymied by the bureaucratic wheel-spinning of official government delegates. Never before at a UN climate change conference have these organizations – arguably representing the most knowledgeable and resourceful advocates for positive action on the issue – collectively given up on the formal negotiations.
Green MP Could Not Represent Her Country . . . Again
Unlike Green Party representatives in other countries – who are typically included in their nations’ delegations despite not having official government or opposition status – Canadian Green MP and Green Party of Canada leader Elizabeth May was denied permission to attend as a delegate of her own country. This is now the norm for May, but Conservative Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq decided to add insult to injury by issuing May an official letter of rejection months after May’s original request, and after May had already landed in Warsaw on November 20. Had May not already made arrangements as an advisory delegate for Afghanistan, of all places, she never would have achieved more than observer status. Canada made no new announcements or commitments at COP 19, and – having already taken the Fossil of the Year title for hindering negotiations at COP 17 – received a “Fossil of Disbelief” in the Climate Action Network’s ongoing mock awards. Perhaps Canada’s most news-worthy environmental action in November was showing an ongoing disdain for positive action to reduce emissions by encouraging Australia to strip bare its limited carbon-tax policies earlier in the month.
Nonbinding Commitment to Make Commitments, Later
Unsurprisingly, all of this did not result in more conclusive, confident, or competent commitments for climate change. The outcome – after 48 hours of nonstop negotiations toward the end of the conference – was a “deal” of the most compromising nature. Simply put, the result is a “draft” text requesting that countries “who are ready” make some kind of “contributions,” which need not be defined for over a year. The “loss and damage”‘ plan that 132 developing nations requested has materialized as an agreement for wealthy nations to provide “expertise” and -potentially only – aid. What kind of expertise the United States and Canada have to offer countries already more effective in limiting emissions while adapting to the effects of climate change is arguable, at best. And when will the actual mechanisms for the loss and damage plan be defined? Not until COP 21.
The most distressing reflection of the failure on global action in response to climate change is not the tearful pleas by negotiators for struggling nations, the reluctant walkouts performed by environmental NGOs worldwide, or the cynical and tokenistic “representation” of countries like Canada through delegations that contribute nothing to the imperative transformation of the status quo. No; the most telltale sign that climate change still hasn’t gained adequate weighting among global issues is represented in our own media; in our own collective numbness in the face of ferocious, pending affliction. COP 19 flew completely under the radar of the average citizen in North America, much to the relief of the United States and Canadian governments, which have crucially failed to respond to the priorities of citizens. This latest Climate Change Conference debacle was not only an undercover COP, but also a complete cop-out.