Climate Change, International Policies

Powerful Injustice at the Bonn Climate Talks

Published in Grist

It’s the fourth day of climate negotiations here in Bonn, and at 4:30 in the afternoon, there is a lull in the action before the start of early evening “contact groups” – official meetings of negotiators that are sometimes open to observers. Looking for a quiet place to sit down with my laptop, I have landed in the main plenary hall, sitting in the seat with a placard that reads “GEF” (Global Environment Facility, the agency charged with managing a portion of funds for international adaptation efforts). Hopefully no one will mind my brief trespass.

To my left sit a man and a woman at the Samoa table – two of the four negotiators from this small island whose very existence is threatened by climate change. Immediately in front of me is a huddle of five people from the World Bank. To my right is a small gathering of a dozen or so from the U.S. team, which is made up of no less than 50 government representatives who have traveled here.

Over the past few days, the issue of inequity has come up in many different contexts. We have heard it in the official proceedings, as developing countries call on industrialized nations to deeply cut their emissions and to provide assistance to enable the poorest, most vulnerable, and least polluting nations adapt to climatic changes. We have heard it in the context of gender, in terms of the differentiated impacts of climate change on women and the need to incorporate women into all aspects of climate change solutions.

Today, I am thinking about the ways that inequity rears its head in more mundane but powerful ways.

During the second day of negotiations, delegates from Cameroon and other Francophone African nations spoke passionately about their limited ability to take part in the negotiations, since the 50-page negotiating text had not yet been translated into French. There are more than 30 francophone countries in Africa. The English version was released over two weeks ago, allowing delegates and civil society groups from Anglophone countries to fully analyze the text, consult stakeholders, and develop thoughtful and strategic comments and revisions. The full suite of translations for the six official languages of the UN was not completed until yesterday – three full days into the 10-day negotiation.

And as my current view of informal groupings in the plenary hall illustrates, there are stark differences in sheer human resources that countries bring to these complex proceedings. According to the printed participant list, no less than 64 countries have only one or two members in their official delegation. One or two! The US has 50, France 36; even Canada has 31.

There are four major tracks taking place simultaneously at this gathering in Bonn: one focused on the Kyoto Protocol, one on a new agreement for long-term cooperative action, one on scientific issues, and a fourth on implementation of the climate convention. Each of these tracks demands input from country delegates on complex and multifaceted issues that affect a country’s relationship with its citizens and with other countries. Keeping up with a single issue–say, the debates around Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD)–can keep one person working doggedly around the clock, which is why delegations like the US have so many people. How can we expect Mauritius, with one delegate, to meaningfully participate and strategically promote its interests in everything that is happening here? Sure, it can join with the G77 and China block to wield some degree of power in these negotiations, but that, in essence, requires putting one’s national autonomy on the shelf.

I’m no expert in the intricacies of international diplomacy, but it seems like this allows for some pretty overt strong-arming from countries with differing interests and greater on-the-ground-in-Bonn staffing.

As I ponder these aspects of inequity, I think about how colleagues in my organization, Population Action International, providecapacity-building and technical and financial support to southern NGOs so they can participate in international forums on reproductive health, AIDS, and other issues. In Bonn, it is obvious that far more resources need to be allotted by the international community to do this in the climate arena. As the climate negotiations march toward a global deal in Copenhagen this December, we need to ensure that those with the most to lose, don’t have the least ability to participate.

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