Negotiating Climate’s Parallel Realities

How in less than two weeks, I went from the American election to a UN climate summit in Morocco to discussing a lack of rainfall with farmers in Senegal.

Standing ovation in the plenary at the adoption of the Paris Agreement, at COP21 in Paris in Dec 2015. Photo credit: Mélody Braun/IRI.

I was in the room, now over a year ago, at the adoption of the Paris Agreement, at the Conference of Parties (COP) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). I saw the standing ovation, the tears, the hugs, the relief as the hard work of the past weeks, years, decade, paid off. I saw the compromises that led to it, the succession of square brackets reflecting all the language disagreements in the text, the red lines and hard fights on some of the concepts. I was there for the entire two weeks: I experienced the long lines late at night to get a print-out of the latest text, the careful proofreading of the new text to spot what language was adopted and who had won which battles, and the people getting a well-deserved hour of sleep here and there, in the back of a room or on the floor in a corridor whenever they got a chance. I felt the hopes and frustration of observers, the anxiety and the expectations of sleep-deprived delegates and the pressure over the French Presidency and the UNFCCC Secretariat to reach an agreement.

I was also there in Copenhagen in December 2009. I waited for two days pressed in front of the gate with my accreditation letter in hand, along with thousands of frustrated delegates and representatives from around the world being told to be patient, as too many people had been accredited. After two days of being patient (and cold and hungry) outside in a nearly snowing Copenhagen, and still being denied entry, I moved to the public forum. Initially nicknamed “Hopenhagen”, the Copenhagen summit was to be the COP that would ‘save the world from climate change.’ It was eventually renamed “Flopenhagen”, as countries could not reach any agreement, and representatives from civil society — i.e. those not representing governments — felt they were excluded from the debate.

Waiting in the cold at the gate of the negotiation center, at COP15 in Copenhagen in Dec 2009. I’m in the yellow scarf in the middle. Photo credit: Service Civil International (SCI).

I was also there in Doha in 2012, and in some of the negotiation sessions in Bonn. I have seen talks stall for a week because one party disagreed over a few words, or because parties were throwing the ball at each other: “I am not committing to this, until and unless X commits to that.” The Paris Agreement itself was the result of many compromises — in fact the final language was only agreed upon by the United States at the last minute under the condition that the terms ‘compensation’ and ‘liability’ be removed from the text.

I am not a negotiation expert, but what I have seen in the past years brings me to appreciate the fact that even if the Paris Agreement is far from being perfect, far from being enough, it was definitely a step in the right direction. As George Monbiot described it in the Guardian: “By comparison to what it could have been, it’s a miracle. By comparison to what it should have been, it’s a disaster.”


Almost a year after the gavel went down in Paris, I sat in a restaurant in New York, witnessing Donald Trump’s victory, in a crowd that first reacted with astonishment, then fear, then near-despair over the course of the evening. Trump, who called climate change a hoax invented by the Chinese to harm the American economy , and who promised to withdraw from the Paris Agreement and cut all US funding to UN global warming programs , would be the next President of the United States.

Just a few days later, I was on a plane to COP22 in Marrakech, where countries would be discussing the implementation of the Paris Agreement. I couldn’t help but think that all this hard-won progress was going to go to waste. The Paris Agreement, the fastest agreement to be ratified in the history of the United Nations, could be nipped in the bud if Trump follows through on his words. One of the major differences between the failure of Copenhagen and the success of Paris was the leadership demonstrated by China and the United States. Surely, I thought, if the United States were to withdraw from it or from the UNFCCC, China would go back on its pledge to curb emissions, as would Australia, Saudi Arabia, etc.

Small group discussions between plenaries at COP22, in Marrakech in November 2016. Photo Credit: Mélody Braun/IRI.

In fact, I was pleasantly surprised at the resilient reaction of most parties to the U.S. election. Australia, Saudi Arabia and others ratified the Paris Agreement after the American election. Considering that these two countries were not known for their willingness to compromise in the past, this was a positive sign.

More importantly, China, the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter, declared that changes in US policy wouldn’t affect its “commitment to support climate negotiations and the implementation of the Paris Agreement.” The withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Agreement or the UNFCCC process could be China’s opportunity to become a world leader in low-carbon goods. They could pursue economic growth by exporting higher-value clean technology products and opening massive low carbon business opportunities while addressing their issues of over-polluted megacities and rapid urbanization. At COP22, other countries and participants warned the United States about the danger of becoming a “rogue country”, the only one to not join the international community to address a global challenge. After all, the identification of what can be seen as a common challenge is often a trigger for more unity, even between parties that are not fully on the same page.

However, a global effort that does not include the U.S. may not be enough to achieve the stated goals of the Paris Agreement, especially the goal of staying under 1.5ºC of global temperature increase. Small island states and least developed countries strongly defended the “1.5 to stay alive” goal as the ultimate threshold to preserve them from dramatic and unmanageable impacts of climate change, and in particular the potential complete and irreversible submersion of some of the island states. This goal was ambitious and hard to achieve from the beginning, but without U.S. participation it is most probably out of reach, and even securing a world below 2 degrees of increase would require large-scale coordinated action now.


A few days after the end of the Marrakech negotiations, I sat under a tree with farmers in a remote village in the southeast Senegalese countryside. We were discussing the 2016 rainy season. Farmers who are used to sowing their seeds after the first rains explain that this year the first rains were followed by dry spells. This means the farmers were forced to plant again once the rains eventually began again. All of the work they did to plant that first time, all of the money they spent on seeds, was wasted.

Boussoura village, Tambacounda, Senegal. Photo Credit: Mélody Braun/IRI.
Shells with shriveled peanuts after a poor rainy season in Tambacounda, Senegal. Photo Credit: Mélody Braun/IRI.

Because of this delay at the start of the season, farmers had to hope for good rainfall at the end of the season to get a good harvest. Unfortunately, the rain stopped a few weeks earlier than expected, and the crops they planted weren’t able to mature. Women in the group cracked some peanuts for us to show only empty shells.

Small-scale farmers all over the world experience these types of climate impacts. While climate change presents a lot of uncertainty, farmers in Senegal, for example, already face more frequent dry spells, and rainy seasons that are less consistent.

Women discussing in group about their historical drought years in the context of IRI participatory exercises. Village discussion and data collection about the performance of the rainy season for R4 Rural Resilience project implemented by the World Food Program in Senegal. Photo Credit: Mélody Braun/IRI.

A big part of what my team at the IRI does is to help farmers be better informed about these climate risks, increase their resilience and have access to risk transfer mechanisms such as insurance products. These products allow them to invest in more productive strategies in good years and be protected against major shocks in bad years. One of our goals is to strengthen farmers’ participation in the design of these insurance products. The purpose of our November trip to Senegal was to test automated forms that would ease the data collection process from farmers and the information flow between project partners.

With this new tool we hope to be able to reach more farmers by scaling these activities. These projects, meant to increase the resilience of rural communities to droughts and poor harvests, depend on the very funds discussed in the negotiations and questioned by the new US administration.


So there I was, sitting under a tree collecting data from farmers about climate impacts already threatening their ability to grow food. One week before I was in a high-level conference discussing strategies for facing climate change in the long term, and the week before that in the US, where the reality of climate change is up for debate. I traveled through three parallel realities that together reflect the disconnect between political decisions at international and national levels, and current, concrete impacts threatening smallholder farmers’ food security in developing countries. It also highlighted the impact of American elections and COP discussions on Senegalese smallholder farmers as well as farmers around the world, right now. In the end, my team’s job is to support those farmers and their families, regardless of what happens in national and international politics.

I have been asked many times by friends and colleagues why I keep wanting to attend the COP negotiations, and how I don’t get frustrated. The answer is, I do get frustrated. It is a slow, tedious, insufficient process. Realistically, progress can only be made so quickly with discussions involving all countries in the world, each with a different historical responsibility, a different vulnerability and adaptive capacity, different resources driving their economy and a different sense of the emergency. Still, I believe that creating a space for all countries to sit at the same negotiation table under the UNFCCC is an important and necessary part of the global process of addressing climate shocks and climate change. But, given the slow nature of negotiations, what happens to the most vulnerable in the interim?

As an individual working in both spheres — high-level political discussions and community-level preparedness and adaptation actions — I feel I have a responsibility to help address this disconnect, by contributing to bring the science and the voices and the human reality of our field work back into the center of the political discussions. Reversely, being part of the high level discussions allows me to use and apply the outcomes of those discussions back into our field work. In the end, regardless of what happens in the politics, we will keep working with the most vulnerable, because eventually we have got to get this right.

Precipitation record from local rain gauge in Columba (Senegal), showing that just a single day of precipitation occurred in October 2016, a sign of an early end of the rainy season that affected crop maturation. Photo Credit: Mélody Braun/IRI.