“…it boils down to the fact that the world is in a state of potential destruction. There’s no use worrying about anything else.”
—Ansel Adam’s final interview, Summer of 1984.
What is COP21 & Does it Matter?
Nnimmo Bassey, a Nigerian architect and veteran of the Convention of Parties (COP) is one of the seasoned civil society delegates heading to Paris for the COP21 in a few weeks. He chuckles in a deep baritone at my more convoluted questions.
My confusion takes time to unravel. We had 40 minutes. But I could have used much more than that. Following the trail of causality into future consequences is like trying to keep a pile of papers stacked neatly on a desk. The desk is in the middle of a desert. During a sand storm. But Bassey is patient. After all these years, he has to be.
Bassey is accustomed to talking about the unfathomable challenges of climate change. He’s used to thinking about assigning national budgets to mitigate environmental costs that are dispersed around the globe; practiced at converting data into global temperature projections. (“Anything more than a 1.5°C temperature increase is simply sentencing Africa to unimaginable suffering.”) Above all, Bassey is acclimated to thinking about how to organize mass climate justice movements.
In the 1990s, Bassey was first drawn into climate justice work because of the violence in the Niger Delta. The oil-rich Delta is the center of international controversy over devastating pollution and human rights violations. Natural gas extracted in oil wells in the Delta is burned/flared into the air at a rate of approximately 70 million m³per day. When Delta locals organized peaceful marches against the destructive practices of oil extraction, their leader Kenule “Ken” Beeson Saro Wiwa was hanged by the military November 10, 1995. Almost exactly twenty years ago to the day.
“This has set my determination to stay on the track of campaigning against those actions that lock in global warming,” says Bassey in his calm, understated voice.
Bassey met his climate justice cohort at a time of gathering political momentum. He met Bolivian President Evo Morales at the UN climate conference in Copenhagen, a summit that worked within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). At the time, UNFCCC still emphasized the principle of Common But Differentiated Responsibility (CBDR). The UNFCCC now represents a fulcrum in the negotiations that rests on the question of how to mitigate the runaway train of global temperature change: The few degrees celsius that will cause mind-bendingly horrific famine, pandemic, drought and loss of habitat.
The UNFCCC called for legally binding commitments by developed countries and voluntary contributions by developing countries. Then in 1995 at the inaugural Convention of Parties in Berlin, delegates carved out a few more stone tablets, and eventually at the third COP produced the auspicous Kyoto Protocol. All signs of more progress to come. Or so it seemed.
But subsequent COP summits are anti climactic by comparison to the first years. On paper, sure, the COPs are intended to result in collective legal acts that establish rights and obligations between the negotiating parties. But answering the Climate Finance questions has proven elusive. The two biggest obstacles to binding agreements are the question of bankrolling mitigation and adaptation as well as cutting emissions at source.
COP15 established a $100 billion-per-year commitment, starting in 2020 from developed countries to help developing countries. Now it’s good PR for countries to tout their proposals to slow down the climate change juggernaut. Morocco, which already offered to host COP22, committed to sourcing more than half of its energy from renewables by the year 2020. Costa Rica proposes to be carbon neutral by 2021.
Yet as of July 2015, there was hardly $5bn in the kitty of the Global Climate Fund, a major shortfall. As if negotiating a divorce settlement, nations seem to be quibbling over the numbers. The fact is that poorer nations need the help of wealthier nations to make a transition to cleaner energy. But, wait, what is all this about “Common But Differentiated Responsibility”? Who is going pick up the check?
“COP21 will be a disappointment,” says Bassey. “Paris will be a COP of intentions and not actions.” He has been skeptical since COP15 in Copenhagen, where he says the track for a binding agreement was closed. And where, midway through the proceedings, access for NGO representatives was suddenly cut.
“We found that our badges were refused,” recalls Bassey. “I was escorted out by UN security. It was all so ridiculous. It was a brazen display of lack of readiness to hear voices from the people.”
Voices of the people from oil-rich, cash-poor nations will have different words about climate change than more highly industrialized nations. The African nations may have more skin in the game in terms of human cost. A 2009 U.S. National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) article determined that more wars will occur in Africa if global temperatures continue to rise.
And when delegates from African nations show up to represent these facts, they have not only been met with physical barriers, but with barriers to comprehension from nations with different standards of living, different concerns and diverging agendas.
“Ambassador Lumumba Di-Aping from Sudan was so strong on the African position, when he saw there was no concession from the rich countries, he broke down in tears,” recalls Bassey. “Those were days when you could really see emotions, passion. Everything was on the table.”
Six years later, it looks like that passion has deserted the negotiations. Climate diplomacy, as with diplomacy writ large, is now moving at a glacial pace. And while Arctic glaciers are dissolving in front of us, this is not good. “The negotiation pace is too slow, far too slow,” said UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon last summer. “The signals coming from the formal negotiations are not encouraging,” Bassey adds. “We see the justice aspect of climate negotiations receding and moving out of focus every day.”
If this is the case, then what purpose do COPS have at all? According to Bassey, the purpose is found outside the formal meetings. COP’s usefulness is in providing the space for civil society groups to share stories and experiences, and to strengthen networks. It is like another World Social Forum. Paris, in particular, is and always has been a place where counter movements run parallel to the official channels of government.
“Going to Paris is about joining forces and sharing. It’s really very reinforcing when people come from different regions and share common pains and a common vision of how to halt this global slide to catastrophe.”
Nnimmo Bassey is one of the figures in a new documentary about climate change and COP21 called Not Without Us by Kontent Films. (Here’s the trailer)