Hidden in the 133-page document agreed upon at the UN climate change talks was a compromise that many consider an infuriating distraction. The countries of the world agreed to welcome the fact that a scientific report on the state of global warming had been produced. But they failed to welcome its findings.
That seemingly small difference is massive in the hyper-subtle, hyper-polite world of climate diplomacy. So massive, in fact, that the bickering over the wording hung like a cloud over these negotiations. Almost 200 countries agreed – barely – to a “rulebook” governing the Paris Agreement on climate change, which is meant to help limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
Debate over whether to “welcome” the findings or simply “note” their existence flared up a week ago. The United States, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Russia – among the leading producers of fossil fuels, which cause climate change – stated publicly that they did not want to “welcome” the findings of a report the UN head had called an “ear-splitting wake-up call.”
That report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says carbon pollution must be cut about in half by 2030 and reach “net zero” by mid-century to avoid what could be described as disastrous climate change – superstorms, floods and the like. Polish students walked out of school and into negotiations holding signs that underscored the urgency in this latest assessment of the science: “12 years left.”
That urgency is new, but the basic science is not. Thirty years ago, a NASA scientist testified before Congress that the era of human-induced global warming had begun. In 1992, countries agreed to create the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which oversees talks on global warming now held at the end of each year.
The fact that discord remains on the basics of the science – much less the actual process of how to cut pollution and how to govern that process – stunned some delegates and observers at the talks, which, symbolically, were held in Europe’s “coal capital.”
“We were not able to get the strong endorsement we should have,” said Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, an environmental group.
What the IPCC report declares is a “planetary emergency,” he said.
Yet there also was a sense of “relief” that the countries could agree on a statement at all – and that they produced a rulebook that is seen by many as setting the stage for a detailed accounting of emissions and new pledges to cut pollution that will be submitted in 2020.
Those concrete rules are more important than the fights about the validity of the IPCC report, said Yamide Dagnet, project director on the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change for the World Resources Institute, a group that studies environmental policy.
“We really have the foundations we need to move forward, not to wait,” Dagnet said in Poland. “We regret what happened last Saturday, but we need to remember it was just a handful of countries that contested this report … What matters is what you do about it.”
The what-to-do-about-it is what concerns Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University in New York. The fight over how to treat the IPCC report, which is regarded as the premier science on this issue, is a massive distraction, he said.
“What’s sad is how much time is wasted on those words because what’s really looming over this are the acts of the Trump administration and a few other governments to willfully put the planet at risk,” Sachs said. “It’s not a matter of belief or denial. It’s a matter of putting oil and coal company – and country – interests above the interests of all of humanity.
“It got translated into many frustrating days of arguing over a few words.”
What’s happening should be considered “climate crimes against humanity,” he said.
“It’s nothing less than that and that’s how history will record what the Trump administration is doing right now: These are crimes against humanity,” he told CNN. “Many people are dying as a result of this. And it’s not a sufficient defense to say, ‘I don’t believe it.’ “
The Paris Rulebook is meant to govern the implementation of the Paris Agreement on climate change, which was decided at a similar UN meeting three years ago. US President Donald Trump has pledged to abandon that agreement, but the country still had a presence at the COP24 talks, which concluded in an overtime session late Saturday night.
Trump at times has denied the basic science of climate change, which states that burning coal, oil and natural gas produces emissions that trap heat in the atmosphere, warming the planet. It’s become increasingly clear that warming is happening faster than previously thought and with worse results. The US National Climate Assessment published this year says thousands of Americans could die and gross domestic product could take a 10% hit by century’s end.
Trump has advocated for burning more coal, a major cause of climate pollution. In Poland, the US delegation held an event dedicated to coal and fossil fuel technologies.
A US State Department spokesperson said the event was intended to show “the remarkable progress we have made through innovation for cleaner technologies.”
“These job-creating innovations have contributed to reducing US emissions while also growing our economy and providing reliable and affordable access to energy,” the spokesman said in a statement.
The event was interrupted by a group of young people mock-laughing at the display.
“It’s so ridiculous. It’s a joke,” said Vic Barrett, a 19-year-old protester.
“We’re done listening to false solutions and things we know don’t work.”
Some negotiators emphasized that only four countries stood up to decline welcoming the science. If the climate talks were not guided by consensus, that would be a fringe view, they said. There actually is wide agreement on the importance of these reports – both among governments and the public, said Teresa Ribera, Spain’s minister for ecological transition.
“You cannot contradict what has been said by science,” she said. “It is fact.”