Super Typhoon Yolanda v Warsaw climate talks

November 19, 2013
by phil
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Climate Radio speaks to leading figures from civil society about their views on the latest round of UN climate talks. In the wake of Super Typhoon Yolanda (aka Haiyan) will negotiators finally wake up and agree an emergency action plan to save the planet? Or do citizens need to escalate their challenge to political elites captured by vested interests?

Climate Radio asks veteran delegate Asad Rehman of Friends of the Earth about the prospects for a meaningful outcome. Lidy Nacpil of Jubilee South tells us about her experience of the Super Typhoon and how Yolanda graphically illustrates the need for a Loss and Damage fund to help poor countries deal with a crisis they did little to cause. Mohamed Adow of Christian Aid explains how we can divide up the remaining safe emissions budget using principles already agreed in the founding UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. The programme also includes Philippines negotiator Yeb Saño‘s moving and historic speech on the opening day when he declared he will fast for the 12 days of the talks “until a meaningful outcome is in sight.”

Full transcript with linked references follows…


Phil England: Welcome to Climate Radio. I spent most of 2009 dedicating myself to producing a weekly programme on the UN climate talks at a time when years of careful deliberation were due to end in a climate-saving agreement in Copenhagen. During those talks four of us made a daily report from both inside the conference centre and outside on the streets where almost daily protests were being made and a parallel civil society conference provided more colour, inspiration and genuine solutions. At the end of it all, everybody’s effort and good intention was swept aside when the US forced a weak, voluntary agreement on the rest of the world through a combination of bribes and pressure.

For many, including myself, that outcome was unspeakably depressing. In a tactical reassessment, climate activists turned away from focusing on the international talks to working at a national level on stopping extreme energy projects through campaigning and direct action. This made sense since the capture of governments by vested interests was limiting both their ability to kick the carbon habit at a national level and contribute constructively to a climate agreement at a global level.

It’s four years on and there is new push towards getting a climate agreement in Paris in 2015. The context has changed. Financial markets are increasingly aware that disaster-prone fossil fuel companies represent an investment risk, and that their stocks are overvalued and artificially inflated in an carbon-constrained world. National governments too face a crisis of legitimacy as they operate increasingly against the interests of their populations, serving instead the interests of corporations and the banks. In a post-crash world, the rise in popularity of zombie movies is surely not coincidental.

The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released in October showed us that in the absence of an effective international agreement we are on a high-emissions scenario racing towards an inhospitable 5 degree world of escalating extreme weather. It also showed us that if we switch rapidly to a low-carbon pathway it is still technically possible to limit warming to two degrees centigrade.

I spoke to a veteran of the talks, Asad Rehman of Friends of the Earth, for his assessment of the likely outcome, just before he left for the latest round of talks in Warsaw.

For Asad Rehman interview transcript go to Ceasefire Magazine

PE: That was Asad Rehman, Friends of the Earth’s senior campaigner on international climate issues. Asad’s assessment that only a growing amount of agitation is going to jolt us from our present course was the same conclusion reached by a scientist presenting at a recent American Geophysical Union conference. As Naomi Klein noted in her contribution to the Russell Brand edited issue of New Statesman, Brad Werner told the audience of eminent scientists that his advanced computer model was essentially advocating a form of “friction” such as protests, blockades and sabotage.

If we needed a shock to the system, nature arrived with a timely one just days before the talks in Warsaw started. Super Typhoon Haiyan was the most powerful storm in history. When the Philippines negotiator Yeb Saño announced a hunger strike until he saw a meaningful outcome on the opening day of the talks, the reality of dangerous climate impacts was brought powerfully into the heart of the negotiating rooms. Here is Yeb’s powerful, moving and historic speech in full, minus the introductory formalities.

For Yeb Saño speech transcript go to Responding to Climate Change

PE: That was Yeb Sano, Philippines negotiator announcing his fast for the climate during the opening session of the UN climate talks in Warsaw on 11 November. And it’s interesting to note that many delegates from campaign and youth groups have been joining Yeb in his fast as an act of solidarity.

The latest IPCC report calculated the safe amount of emissions that are available to us if we want to keep global average temperature rise within 1.5-2 degrees centigrade. One key task of the conference therefore, if it is to achieve its central objective, is to inscribe this safe carbon budget into the agreement and work out how to share this fairly between countries. In a dangerously pre-emptive and undemocratic move, Executive Secretary to the UN talks, Christina Figueres, spoke out in advance against doing precisely this saying it would be too politically difficult. I spoke to Christian Aid’s climate talks expert, Mohamed Adow, about Christina’s remarks and about how countries could agree to share the remaining emissions budget using principles already agreed by the nearly 200 countries represented at the talks.

PE: Christina Figueres said in The Guardian that it would be politically very difficult to even talk about [how to fairly share the remaining carbon budget]. She said, “I don’t know who would hold the pen.” Until we see a carbon budget embedded in the UN talks, all our efforts to stay within two degrees will come to nought.

Mohamed Adow: If we continue at our current emissions levels we will have used up the remaining carbon budget within about 25 years. Which means if we are serious about the two degrees objective we need to engage with the carbon budget approach so that we are in line with what science says is required. We’re in a situation now where the less well off developing countries are actually leading the world towards curbing climate change and the developed world. Canada, Australia and Japan are breaking their climate promises. These countries are cowed by the dirty energy industries. They are setting the world on a race to the bottom. We must stop them.

We need to be able to protect the planet for current and future generations. We need to protect our food production systems that are threatened by climate change. We need to protect people in the Philippines and other countries who are already feeling first and worst the impacts of climate change. We need to shift the world from the dirty energy pathway we are on to a clean and sustainable pathway. If we are serious about climate change – and I believe we are – it’s time we actually rose to the challenge. Let Typhoon Haiyan be a wake up call for the world to act in a way that is ambitious and also fair.

PE: In sharing the effort both to reduce emissions and to fund developing countries to develop cleanly and adapt to climate change, what principles are you using? My understanding is that the principles are actually coming out of language that is in the original Framework Convention of 1992 that everyone is signed up to.

MA: That’s right. In 1992, countries agreed to co-operatively prevent dangerous climate change, to be able to adapt naturally to climate change and ensure food production is not threatened and the world economy can progress in a sustainable manner. The core principles in the Convention the adequacy principle which requires countries to undertake emissions reductions to avoid dangerous climate change and to provide effective adaptation to the poorest and most vulnerable countries.

The second important principle in the Convention is the idea of the right to sustainable development. This explicitly focuses on safeguarding the sustainable development rights of the poorest countries who aspire to attain a decent standard of living. For those countries we are required to help them move to low carbon development through finance and clean technology provided by those countries with the most historical responsibility and greater [financial] capacity.

PE: Using these principles you’ve been able to quantify the amount of effort each country should make. How do your results differ from what’s currently on the table?

MA: Countries have acknowledged that there is an ambition gap. They’ve proposed to close this through action to face down gases that are polluting the atmosphere, to shift subsidies from dirty energy to clean energy and to undertake international cooperative actions around renewable energy and energy efficiency. They need to follow through and deliver on these commitments. Warsaw must agree a clear timeline on increasing the ambition of countries in the pre-2020 period. And the kind of commitments we are looking for is what the science says we need to stay below two degrees [centigrade of average global warming]. What is required is for emissions to peak around 2015 and for countries to publicly state that they will be raising their ambition levels and contributing to the global climate fund with adequate financing to support those countries that are affected by climate change and to support particularly the poorest countries to develop in a clean manner.

PE: So what kind of obligation does the US, for example, have under this framework?

MA: The US has about 4.5% of the global population. If you look at climate emissions from just 1990 they are responsible for 27% of the global emissions. If you look at US capacity – that is the national income adjusted for purchasing power parity – the US has about a third of the world total. Which means the US has to take on about a third of the global responsibility. The current industrialised countries where about 17-18% of the global population live will be required to take on nearly two thirds of the emissions cuts. And these are the same countries who have nearly 60% of the global income once you’ve adjusted for and excluded the proportion of the population that lives under the development threshold. So if you adjust income for basic need you realise the global capacity sits with the rich industrialised countries and it’s these countries that have to pay for a lot of the actions that will be required by developing countries.

PE: But we have a huge gap in terms of ambition right now.

MA: This is a gap that has been with us since Copenhagen when countries put forward their initial mitigation [ie emission reductions] and climate finance commitments. There is a difference between the emissions the world is on course to produce and the ambition level required to [get] on track for the two degrees emission pathway. If we look at finance, the world committed to raising $100 billion by 2020, there was a commitment to deliver “fast track finance” of $10 billion per year between 2009 and 2012. But for the period between 2013 and 2020 there is currently no collective commitment on climate finance. Parties have acknowledged these gaps and they’ve indicated they will be closing them. But we need to be seeing concrete action otherwise we will be shooting beyond the agreed global climate objective of [staying below] two degrees.

PE: Besides being embedded in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change to which everybody is already signed up, what other support is there for this approach currently?

MA: Civil society supports our equity principles, our equity indicators and the framework we have put forward. Governments have also started talking about equity in ways that are linked to the Convention principles. They’ve acknowledged these principles and have committed not to reinterpret them. Governments like South Africa and the African group that includes 54 countries, and the Least Developed Countries are supportive. We are pleased to note that the volume on equity has been turned up this year. But what we need is to establish a clear vision that captures the UNFCCC principles in a way that they can be operationalised.

We’re looking forward to forging a clear plan that is based on the principles of the convention. But we are far away from where we ought to be. Warsaw has to bridge the gap between developed and developing countries, between the different government views and increase understanding on the need for effort sharing. That is what is required to be able to deliver an effective deal in Paris in 2015.

PE: Even though we’re expecting a deal to be agreed in Paris in 2015 it’s not going to come into effect until 2020. Is there any reason why it has to take five years before it comes into effect or is there any way of moving that timetable forward?

MA: In effect governments are delaying the desperately needed climate action. But governments also agreed to ramp up their pre-2020 ambition, because 2020 is going to be too late for poor people who are on the front line. What is needed is urgent, ambitious action in the pre-2020 period. So they must agree – between now and in Paris in 2015 – on concrete steps for the pre-2020 period to curb the rise in the world’s emissions and to be able to deliver the climate support that is required both to adapt and cope with a changing climate, and to shift towards a clean development pathway.

PE: That was Mohamed Adow, senior climate campaigner at Christian Aid, speaking to me on the line from Warsaw a few days ago. And we can use the indicators developed by Christian Aid and others to determine the amount of effort countries should be making now without waiting until Paris in 2015. We can make sure our governments become familiar with the actual scale of emissions cuts and international climate funds they need to be contribute so that we avoid dangerous climate change and safeguard the poorest from its impacts.

We didn’t have time to talk in depth in this programme about other great ideas on the table from civil society about ending fossil fuel subsidies, global feed in tariffs, ending new fossil fuel developments, alternatives to carbon markets, getting an agreement to keep dirty energy companies and other vested interests from influencing climate policy and other things that could be agreed in Warsaw this week if there was the political will.

But I was able to speak to Lidy Nacpil from the anti-debt coalition Jubilee South about another concrete outcome that civil society is pushing for – the establishment of a loss and damage mechanism to make sure we continue to help people like those in the Philippines when disaster strikes.

PE: It seemed an odd coincidence that the most powerful storm in history should hit the Philippines just days before the UN talks opened. Is this something you’ve been personally affected by?

Lidy Nacpil: I have many friends and colleagues in this area. We have member organisations on these islands. So we know people personally who have lost some of their relatives and many who have lost their homes completely.

PE: It’s almost impossible to comprehend the devastation. What is your sense of the impacts?

LN: Because we left the Philippines just as the typhoon was entering, what we have seen is mainly from the video clips. Communications were down completely for more than a day and are still down in some of the areas. We know these places, these cities so it’s really horrible to see how much it has been completely flattened out. No trees, no houses were left standing in many areas. The news coverage everyday still moves us.

PE: This also strengthens the case for the Loss and Damage fund that people have been discussing at the talks.

LN: Well this is our hope: that it serves as a strong reminder of how urgent it is for the whole climate change agenda, including the push for a Loss and Damage mechanism. We need clear pledges and a roadmap for raising finance for both adaptation and Loss and Damage. But also we hope that it lends further urgency for more ambitious cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. But as we are here observing and trying to intervene in the negotiations, it doesn’t give us very much hope that governments are listening. There’s still a lot of obstruction being caused by governments like the US and Australia to any progress on the negotiations on Loss and Damage. In particular there’s still no clarity to their commitments on scaling up and raising finance. So there’s a big difference between what we can expect and what we should be demanding in these negotiations.

PE: Civil society has been helping with a big petition and there’s also a rally coming up?

LN: There are actually many civil society actions and interventions on this. Here in Warsaw there’s a mobilisation tomorrow where this will be one of the messages. There’s a petition on Avaaz that was started which is also an indication of the many responses. There are also many other civil society initiatives in the Philippines in particular, and among youth groups here who are doing a sympathy fasting, so it’s all been quite moving in fact. Except that there’s been no corresponding movement on the part of governments.

PE: Am I right in thinking that the Loss and Damage Fund was actually promised at some point?

LN: One of the very few positive highlights in [the 2012] Doha [climate talks] was an indication that an agreement will be reached here in Warsaw for a Loss and Damage mechanism but there is no sign of that coming to fruition after all.

PE: So we have three funds now, Loss and Damage, Adaptation and the Green Climate Fund – none of which really have any money in at all?

LN: No. No money. The Adaptation Fund has some but that’s really pathetically small and the Green Climate Fund is still an empty fund.

PE: And all the US and the rich countries seem to talk about is to somehow incentivise corporations to…

LN: …to put in investments. There is very little actual money being pledged and all the public money that the rich countries are talking about is money they want to use to leverage private funds. So it’s not even public money going to people, it’s public money going to corporations so they can have incentives to invest.

PE: What is the current status of the discussions around other ways of raising money such as from national finances, a tax on financial transactions and redirecting fossil fuel subsidies towards renewable energy?

LN: There’s a whole lot of ideas about how to raise money including what they call “innovative” ways but these are still ideas that are not being implemented yet. The governments have to have the political will to move forward with this. Like with the financial transactions tax, some governments have been sympathetic and some have adopted resolutions internally, but for this to really work it has to be a global effort. There is still a lot of push towards this, but we are also saying these [other sources of money] should not replace pledges by governments who could mobilise public funds by levying taxes on corporations. We’re not saying that corporations should not give money, but we don’t want it in the form of investments. We want to receive public funds that are committed to climate programmes in the South.

PE: Most insultingly, rich country governments have been suggesting that these funds actually be given in the form of loans.

LN: Exactly. They’re actually not just suggesting it. A lot of the funds that the UK for instance have committed or given as climate funds are actually in the form of loans. So they’re supposed to be paying for the impacts of the crisis they’ve created but instead we’re going to have to pay for them ourselves.

PE: With interest.

LN: Yes, in fact. With interest.

PE: Saddling you with new debts. I don’t know where rich countries are going with this. Is there never going to be a moment where they say, like the IPCC has just said, that actually we’re on the pathway to a 5C world – which is a catastrophe – and the only thing that can save us is an unprecedented emergency response? Can you see that lightbulb switching on at any point? Do you see any trigger for that?

LN: No. I don’t think so. I think that we are asking the same question, because apparently even what is happening in the Philippines is not enough to wake them up or move them to do what they should.

PE: That’s a fairly bleak outlook. Nothing from civil society, nothing from a divestment campaign…

LN: Well, we haven’t lost hope of course. We have a lot of faith and confidence that if we build our strength, scale up our actions, mobilise together everywhere, we will reach the stage where we can actually force governments to do something. But we’re not there yet. So there’s a lot of work ahead. We’re saying, at this moment we’re not yet strong enough to compel them. Even tragedies like typhoon Yolanda in the Philippines is not enough to wake them up. It doesn’t mean we’re giving up or that we’re losing hope. But the hope lies in the kind of strength that we can build amongst ourselves.

PE: That was Lidy Nacpil of Jubilee South at the UN talks in Warsaw a few days ago. If super-typhoon Yolanda proves insufficient to jolt political elites into doing the right thing then it’s us that is going to have to make the difference. As John F Kennedy said to Martin Luther King and the March on Washington Committee in 1963 about the civil rights legislation [that Lyndon Johnson] would eventually sign a year later: ‘go out and make me do it’. You’ve been listening to Climate Radio. Visit our archive for references and to listen to other programmes. It’s at Thanks for listening.

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