Setting the context for global climate catastrophe.

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Emily Williams, Campaign Director, California Student Sustainability Coalition, UCSB alum 2013

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Trudging along through the muggy heat of Lima at the UN Climate Conference, nothing would indicate that we were standing at a conference that is slated to respond to a planetary emergency. Delegates lounge at tables on the grass, under the shade of trees, conducting interviews and swapping notes about the latest plenary. Delegates and civil society alike sweat in the temporary structures that house the COP, which are no more than huge tents with glass roofs, the same design as a greenhouse. Muttered jokes reference the UNFCCC’s desire for the delegates to feel the heat; others reference the cartoon featuring a frog in a boiling pot of water.

I arrived in Lima three days ago as an observer delegate with SustainUS for the 20th

Conference of the Parties (COP), under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The UNFCCC was created over 20 years ago to deal with the rising issue of climate change, providing a forum for global governments and the UN alike to negotiate strategies to mitigate and adapt to the worst impacts. Every year, the UNFCCC hosts a COP, where teams of negotiators from each country converge for two weeks to negotiate each country’s commitments—the level of emissions each country should cut, the amount of finance each country should pledge, and the policies each country should adopt to deal with adaptation. While it is well intentioned, the COP has failed to produce any type of binding treaty; COP20 is the 20th of these conferences, and governments have only managed to agree that they want to limit global mean temperature to 2 degrees Celsius of warming.

On my flight coming over, I had to ask myself why I’d decided to return to COP. I attended COP19 in Warsaw, Poland, which had quickly earned the name “The Corporate COP.” COP19 was heavily funded by multiple industries, and made no effort to hide it. There were bean-bag chairs strewn throughout the halls branded with “Emirates”; large signs proudly touting their sponsors, BMW and PGE among them; and the Executive Secretary, Christina Figueres, became the keynote speaker to the global coal conference that ran alongside. At the end of the two weeks, after incredible frustration, disillusionment, and days of running in circles[1], I joined 400 other civil society members and walked out of the COP in protest.

So why did we return? During that walkout, we wore shirts with “Polluters Talk, We Walk” on the front and “volveremos” on the back—we will return. And so we did. We returned to see if we could make some change in Lima.

COP 20 is possibly the most important climate conference we’ve had. It is the last COP before COP21 in Paris, where countries are slated to sign onto a treaty that will outline mitigation, adaptation, and finance from 2015 to 2020, and another set of agreements for post-2020. Paris will reportedly be then next Copenhagen—hopes are high, but it is unlikely we’ll see the results we want to see. As Lima sets the discussions and early commitments that will inform the decisions made in Paris, it becomes increasingly obvious that they will not satisfy the needs of global societies.

But before we can understand what is being discussed and decided in Lima, we first need to set the context.

There is a huge rift between the developed nations and the developing and least developed nations (LDCs). To begin with, developed countries are focusing on mitigation. The Umbrella Group, which includes the US and Australia, is the most powerful group in the negotiations. It is leading the effort to push for all countries (including developing countries) to make pledges on individual emissions cuts. However, it is that very group that has been historically responsible for the bulk of emissions, and is not yet experiencing the worst impacts of climate change. Developing countries and LDC are pushing for adaptation and loss and damage (finance) to be considered by the negotiations process. Rightly so, they are hesitant to pledge any amount of emissions cuts if they are not guaranteed to have the financial support to do so, and have the support to implement adaptation and fight current impacts of climate change. By ignoring this demand, the Umbrella Group and associates are condemning hundreds of millions of people to unconscionable suffering.

In November 2014, the United States and China announced a historical, and unexpected, agreement—they had met separately and before COP20 announced their own pledges for emissions reductions. It was a fantastic moment. For one, Obama made it quite clear that his legacy is to be a leader in climate action. It also set the tone for COP20, indirectly urging other countries to do the same. This announcement has given civil society something to hold onto to push Obama for even greater commitments that we desperately need to stay under 1.5 degrees[2]. However, if you dig a bit deeper, you’ll realize this is no cause for celebration. The US-China deal announced pledges that place us on track for a 4-6 degree warmer world. The US’s commitment in particular would only cut 14% of emissions by 2025 of 1990 levels.  Many NGOs are latching onto this agreement as a tiny glimmer of hope; but science and math shows that this will not deliver anywhere near the level of ambition needed.

Unfortunately, more and more developed countries are latching onto the idea of reaching an agreement no matter the costs. The orchestrator of this trend is the Obama Administration; Obama has made it disturbingly clear that he wants an agreement in Paris no matter the content. As a part of his legacy, he wants to be seen as the president who was able to orchestrate and reach such an agreement. Yet the proposals he’s putting forward, and the pressure he’s putting on developing countries, would mean game over for the planet and the most vulnerable communities. In addition to the lack of adaptation and finance, under this push for an agreement, developed countries are finding loopholes to avoid ambitious emissions cuts. In March 2015, countries will submit Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) for their intended pledges in Paris. This push for an agreement no matter the cost is allowing countries to draft pledges that determine their own targets for emissions cuts. Allowing countries to determine their own cuts will fail to put us on track to stay within 1.5 degrees of warming.


During each of the last four COPs, the Philippines have been struck by typhoons. Typhoon Haiyan, which struck the Philippines last year during COP19, was the most devastating typhoon to ever hit land; the typhoon left an enormous swath of damage, and killed a total of 6340 people. Yeb Sano, negotiator for the Philippines, delivered the Philippine’s opening speech on the first day of COP19; at that time, he did not know where his brother was. This year, Yeb has not returned. Typhoon Ruby is on track to hit the Philippines this weekend and has reached the status of “superstorm”; many fear that it will have the same impact as Haiyan, if not worse. But the Philippines is not the only place already experiencing the destructive impacts of climate change.

The Maldives are experiencing an increasing rate of storm surges and damaging sea level rise. Large areas in Africa are undergoing extensive drought, killing livestock and crops. More and more people are becoming classified as climate refugees. Adaptation and finance is necessary for these countries, but as long as the Umbrella Group dictates the negotiations, they will never see the assistance they need from the UNFCCC.

When you walk around the COP, listen in on the plenaries and negotiations, and read the materials that countries are providing, you don’t get the sense that this conference was scheduled to respond to a planetary emergency. Human deaths, the discounting of youth and future generations, and the real impacts on oceans, forests, and wildlife are treated as simple statistics and trading cards. It is institutionalized insanity, and one has to wonder how the connection between reality and the bubble that is COP has become white noise. In Yeb Sano’s words, “it is time to stop this madness.”


[1] Quite literally in circles. The conference venue was in a football stadium (soccer), and the halls were around the circumference. People averaged ten laps per day.

[2] It’s the new 2 degrees Celsius. Much better target.