Sunday, November 30, 2014

And so it begins

Day 1 of the COP meeting involves the annual ritual of navigating your way to the venue, getting registered, and then becoming oriented to the city.  Those of us with observer credentials can’t get into the arena until the official opening of the conference on the first Monday, but it is a good idea to beat the morning crowds trying to register then.  The navigation part can be interesting in a foreign country, but this year, I am here with Sarabeth Brockley (Moravian College graduate and graduate student at Lehigh) and Deanna Metivier (an undergraduate at North Carolina State University) – both of whom are fluent in Spanish.  That helps with finding directions, communicating with taxi drivers, etc. 

The San Borja district has many small parks and tree-lined streets.  I learned quickly that these are great places for urban birding!

We knew we were close to the COP venue when we saw a sign and some folks handing out a mini-newspaper to people in the park about the COP meeting that contained articles like “El cambio climático es el problema ambiental más important.

Deanna is on the far left, Sarabeth is the blonde
Security at COP meetings is always high and you learn not to question protocol, even if it seems odd.  Today we learned that once inside the first gate (which of course is the farthest away, so you walk around a lot of fenced in area), you have to take a shuttle to the actual meeting location and then go through another layer of security screening.  Each COP has its own quirks, but this arrangement in Lima promises to become a huge bottleneck when 15,000 people are all trying to get to the meeting at the same time in the morning.  But so it is.

The 2014 venue
Not until the meetings actually commence will we get a sense for what is going to be accomplished, but reports range from cautious optimism (1) to a sense that even negotiating success (i.e. a multilateral legally binding agreement to cut greenhouse gas emotions globally) won’t solve the climate problem.  Take for example, the quote for an article in today’s New York Times (2):

“But underlying that optimism is a grim reality: No matter the outcome of the talks, experts caution, it probably will not be enough to stave off the increasingly significant, near-term impact of global warming.”

After my recent opinion piece that appeared in the local newspaper (a edited version of the last post on this blog), someone from the community wrote me a lengthy email with about the same sentiment as that from the NY Times.  Sigh.  I try to remain more optimistic than that.

After finding a place to eat (the San Borja suburb at first seemed like all apartments and no shops or restaurants), we hit the local grocery store to stock our rental apartment, and then headed to a vigil on the eve of COP20.  Often these are organized by faith-based coalitions, as was the case tonight.  Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC kicked off the event (before we arrived) and a large group marched through the streets.  We listened to a few speakers as well as some musicians who had composed pieces specifically for the event.

Of particular interest, was our conversation with the organizers of #fastfortheclimate (#ayunoporeclclima) scheduled for tomorrow.  

According to their press release,

Fasters will gather in the main cafeteria of the COP20 to pose with empty plates to show that they stand in solidarity with people impacted by climate change. Prominent fasters will discuss the attempt at the largest ever fast and launch the next phase of the movement - 365 Days of Fasting. Yeb Sano, Climate Change Commissioner for the Philippines will make a statement by video link.

I don’t know what or who "prominent fasters" are, but Yeb Sano is the delegate who announced a hunger strike at COP19 following the massive typhoon to hit the Philippines last year to protest the slow progress in climate negotiations and the impact being felt in his country.

I will let some photos from the event tell the rest of the story for tonight as they are better than words that I can come up with.

1) International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development, Negotiators land in Lima with eyes on a draft climate deal

2) Davenport, C. Grim Reality Amid Optimism Ahead of Climate Talks, New York Times,

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Preparing for COP20

On December 1st, the 20th Conference of the Parties (COP20) will meet in Lima, Peru to continue the long-running attempts to draft an international treaty on climate change. A successful agreement would have aggressive commitments to mitigate the causes of climate change (reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and a dramatically decreased rate of rainforest destruction) and would include a comprehensive global blueprint (and funding) for adapting to the changes resulting from planetary warming and climate disruption.

COP20 marks the 20th anniversary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – an agreement that emerged from the Rio Earth Summit. It has been 25 years since the international community called for action on greenhouse gases, 26 since James Hansen testified to U.S. congressional committees about global warming. When the UNFCCC was drafted in 1992, negotiators borrowed language from the Montreal Protocol (an agreement to address the destruction of the ozone layer): that member states would “act in the interests of human safety even in the face of scientific uncertainty”. In the time since that draft, the scientific uncertainty about climate change and its causes has been greatly reduced as evidenced in the thousands of peer-reviewed papers published each year and the high confidence level (over 95%) expressed by experts in the most recent report (AR5) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that climate change is indeed human-caused.

This will be the 6th COP that Moravian College has sent a delegation to after being accredited as an official observer in 2009. We use this blog to report on the issues that we learn about at these international gatherings in an effort to increase awareness of this complex 21st century challenge and to hopefully generate discourse about how to address climate change.

There are a number of factors that make this COP particularly important, including some of the memorable events over the past year in terms of climate change history.
  • COP21 in Paris in 2015 has been identified as the target year for adopting an ambitious, multilateral, legally-binding treaty that will significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and make major progress on a myriad of issues related to building resilient communities, managing risks of extreme weather events and disasters, and assisting developing countries in adapting to the impacts of climate change already being experienced. That means that the main negotiations on targets and language will have to be developed at this conference. In order to “galvanize and catalyze climate action” in advance of COP20 and 21, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon invited world leaders to a Climate Summit in September of this year; over 100 world leaders gathered at the United Nations for this event. Perhaps even more importantly, two days before the summit, the largest climate march in history took place with 2646 events in 162 countries. More than 300,000 people marched in the streets of New York City alone.
  • Preceding this summit, over the past year, the United Nations hosted 13 Open Working Group sessions as part of the effort to develop the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Global climate change was at the forefront of these discussions, and combating climate change emerged this summer as one of the 17 proposed SDGs. Debate was not over whether climate change should or shouldn’t be a goal, but whether it should be a stand-alone goal or a component of all SDGs.
  • According to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the globally averaged temperatures over land and ocean surfaces for both June and September 2014 were the highest since record keeping began in 1880. September marked the 355th consecutive month (29.6 years) with a global temperature above the 20th century average. The last below-average global temperature for June was in 1976 and the last below-average global temperature for any month was in February 1985. In the U.S., the October national average temperature was 3.0°F above average and 2014 is on track to be the warmest year on record globally. Welcome to the new normal.
  • Slower to the warming party due to the physical and chemical properties of water, our oceans are now demonstrating the anticipated changes. The September 2014 global sea surface temperature was the highest on record for any month. Did these warming waters have any impact on Typhoon Nuri – the recent storm that hit Alaska? We can’t know for sure. Not only was this the strongest storm to hit this region, meteorologists believe that it may have been one of the deepest extra-tropical low pressure systems on record in the North Pacific.
  • This spring, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels surpassed the 400 ppm mark. Unlike the stock market, rising values is not what the public should be hoping for. According to an October 2009 paper in the highly respected journal Science, you have to go back 15 million years to find atmospheric conditions like that in our atmosphere – long before Homo sapiens were around. According to UCLA professor Aradhna Tripati, the lead author on that paper, "The last time carbon dioxide levels were apparently as high as they are today — and were sustained at those levels — global temperatures were 5 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit higher than they are today, the sea level was approximately 75 to 120 feet higher than today, there was no permanent sea ice cap in the Arctic and very little ice on Antarctica and Greenland." The atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide today represent a 44% increase since the historical pre-industrial levels of 278 ppm which were relatively constant for about 800,000 years.
  • The November election results in the U.S. will bring to Washington a Republican-controlled House and Senate. Party leaders have already vowed to revoke regulations aimed at tackling carbon pollution in this country and are trying to push through approval of the controversial Keystone pipeline project in this lame-duck session. Given these developments and the fact that the U.S. has long been viewed as a major obstacle in the international climate negotiations, I was assuming that COP20 would be another fruitless endeavor. And then, out of the blue this week, came the announcement of a historic climate-related agreement between the U.S. and China. These are the two nations with the largest carbon footprints and the two most recalcitrant parties at the COP meetings. The proposed targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions of these two countries are not sufficient to “fix” the problem of global climate change, but the agreement is a crucial first step for both countries. No doubt this will lead to a showdown in Washington, but the agreement could really provide the spark needed to ignite progress at the international negotiation table.
Stay tuned! 2014 still has several more weeks to add even more chapters into the climate history book.