PETER O. ZIERLEIN
Saleemul Huq has done more to help poor people and countries prepare for climate change than perhaps anyone else in the world. As a co-founder of the Bangladesh Center for Advanced Studies in the mid-1980s, he directed some of the first studies of how climate change would affect the poor. In 2001 he joined the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) in London. There he worked to raise awareness among European governments, media and NGOs about the great injustice of climate change: it has been caused by centuries of greenhouse gas emissions by rich industrial countries, but its impacts–stronger storms, deeper droughts, fiercer floods, sea level rise–punish the poor first and worst.
The poor deserve help coping, argues Huq. Toward that end, he has helped expand the NGO climate coalition beyond the usual environmental suspects to include leading antipoverty and humanitarian organizations. The landmark 2004 report "Up in Smoke?"–co-sponsored by Greenpeace, World Wildlife Fund, Oxfam and others–pointed out that climate change threatens to deepen poverty, violate human rights and create many more disaster victims. Thus industrial countries must not only reduce their emissions to limit future damage (mitigation, in climate parlance); they must also help poor nations cope with the impacts that are now unavoidable (adaptation). Huq’s other priority has been to help poor-country governments engage more effectively in the UN-sponsored negotiations that will decide international climate policy.
Copenhagen will be the biggest test yet for Huq and his colleagues as they fight for genuine and equitable solutions to climate change. Huq recently told me what to watch for at the talks–and how you can help.
You’ve said it’s not so bad if Congress fails to pass the Waxman-Markey climate bill before Copenhagen. Why not?
Waxman-Markey is not a strong bill. If the Senate passes it, that actually ties Obama’s hands in Copenhagen, because then the US can say, "We can’t do more than this." But if, at Copenhagen, we can get everyone else to up their ante, then Obama can go back to Congress and say, "Hey, guys, we need to do a much more ambitious package than we thought."
We need to find a way for everyone to ratchet up their level of ambition. The European Union has said it will do a 20 percent cut of emissions [from 1990 levels] by 2020, but it would increase that to 30 percent if others do it as well. Same with Japan: the new government has pledged 25 percent cuts, if others do it. "If others do it" is the motto now: we need a race to the top. That’s the trick that needs to be pulled off between now and December.
What are the priorities for poor countries at Copenhagen?
Obtaining a lot more money for adaptation to climate change is their primary goal. The latest studies suggest that adaptation will need tens of billions of dollars annually, not the smaller amounts discussed in the past. In addition, poor countries have a goal they have not had before, on mitigation targets: what do big industrial countries have to do to cut emissions, but also what do big developing countries have to do? The less developed countries have to stand up to the Chinas, Indias and Brazils, which they’re not used to doing and not comfortable with.
The less developed countries have, however, formed a common position. They’ve called on the world to agree to limit the global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius [above preindustrial levels].
1.5C? That’s a pretty tough target. The leaders of the G-8 rich industrial economies endorsed 2C in July, and many scientists say even that will be very difficult.
[The 1.5C target] is almost unachievable, but at least it’s ambitious. These developing countries are saying, "Even 1.5C is going to cause us harm, and we’re not the ones who caused this." A 1.5C target asks the rest of the world to go into wartime mobilization against climate change rather than taking a laissez-faire approach. But this target has gotten no attention in the press so far.
How did developing countries get to where they can advance a common position on climate change?
Since 2001 we at IIED have focused on the Least Developed Countries group. This group includes forty-nine countries, mainly from Africa but also Asia and Haiti, whose per capita income can be a dollar a day or less. This group had been participating in negotiations on climate change but was not engaged in any meaningful sense. We tried to strengthen the negotiators of these countries, helping their diplomats understand the issues better, develop shared positions and negotiate as a group rather than individually.
One problem these governments had was, lack of money meant that they sent just one negotiator per country to a negotiating session. But these negotiations are highly complex, and the sessions often split into six to eight streams of subnegotiations, which makes it impossible for a single diplomat to cover everything. But with forty-eight countries, if they work together, they have a big group and can be more effective.
Now, before each COP [Conference of the Parties, climate lingo for sessions like the one in Copenhagen], we hold workshops for negotiators from the forty-eight Least Developed Countries. We go through the agenda, strategize what their positions can be, and they organize themselves into groups that can handle different streams of the negotiations.
Poor countries scored a victory at the Bali negotiations two years ago, didn’t they?
The Kyoto Protocol, agreed on in 1997, created a Clean Development Mechanism to finance low-carbon development in poor countries. Under the CDM, every time a rich country paid to build, say, a low-carbon power plant in a poor country, 2 percent of the total investment was set aside to fund adaptation efforts in poor countries. Over time, these 2 percent deposits accumulated. But these funds had not been monetized, because there was disagreement over who should manage the fund. Rich countries wanted the Global Environment Facility of the World Bank to run it. Developing countries wanted a new fund, with the governance shared but with a slight majority of representatives from developing countries. At Bali, the developing countries won that argument–by sticking together and making the better argument.
You talk as if the best argument always wins in international negotiations.
[laughs] No, of course that doesn’t always happen. But it can, under the right circumstances. The Least Developed Countries group is a subset of the Group of 77 developing countries plus China. [The group actually includes 130 countries but for historical reasons is still called G-77 plus China.] So first the LDC group had to convince the other governments in the G-77 plus China that their idea was best, and then they had to get the rich countries to come along. The realpolitik of this is that once the LDC 48 and the Group of 77 plus China have a common position, it’s a very powerful bloc. They don’t often have a common position, but when they do, they carry a lot of weight in the negotiations, and the developed countries respect that.
That suggests that if the LDC 48 and the G-77 plus China are united, they could achieve something at Copenhagen.
That’s precisely the idea.
What can Americans do to help?
The United States is an unusual case. The rest of world has accepted that climate change is a major problem, it has to be dealt with and we all have to pitch in together. The new prime minister of Japan has made a radically more ambitious proposal, promising 25 percent emissions reductions by 2020. That is now the global position, except for the US. We have an administration in Washington that gets it. The problem in the US is the public and the Congress. Obviously President Obama has only so much political capital, and he’s spending it on the healthcare bill. He needs to spend more, though, on getting a climate bill.
The US public is the only rich-country public that maintains a high level of skepticism about climate change. This skepticism is fed by a sophisticated and expensive misinformation program funded by the oil and coal industries. So Americans need to be made aware of what the situation really is. Average Americans need to get better informed. Then they need to tell their leaders they want them to take action.