"For Papua New Guinea, and I suspect many other countries, the time for mind-numbing debate has passed. The time for leadership has arrived! We cannot idly watch our island communities slip silently under the waves of sea level rise, our villages torn apart by cyclones of increasing fury or our children die of new virulent diseases."
- Robert Aisi, Ambassador to UN, Papua New Guinea
Firstly, apologies for the delay and brevity in this post; my original one was accidentally deleted when it was almost done and it took me over a day to recover from my crankiness and try again!
The climate change thematic ‘debate’ has now wrapped up at the UN General Assembly in New York. I put the word debate in quotations because the relation between the reading of 117 pre-scripted statements and actual constructive debate is somewhat tenuous. Lack of spontaneity aside, there were some heartening elements alongside the disheartening ones.
Firstly, it was great to see the number of countries that wanted to speak on the issue. It shows that the UN has certainly touched on something the global community feels it has a key role in addressing, and rightly so. The G.A. debate was scheduled for the 12th, but went several days over time. 117 statements at 5 minutes each (most of them actually going much longer) doesn’t fit well into a six-hour day! As our observer badges (and travel plans) covered only the 11-12th, our two youth representatives could only be there for the first day of speeches.
Most countries – many of which were represented by ministers (over 20!) or special emissaries, lead negotiators, etc on climate change – spoke on the need to maintain momentum in the difficult process leading to Copenhagen and of the centrality of the UN to the process. Talk of the Bali Action Plan was ubiquitous, and many countries were keen to continue pushing the process forward. The other main theme was the importance of integrating climate change and sustainable development.
Here are a few of the key highlights from the statements given on the 12th:
Many countries in the Small Island Developing State (SIDS), Least Developed Country (LDC), and African groups spoke of the connection between climate change and their progress towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals. Ministers emphasised that for low-lying islands and arid states, climate change is an existential issue (in other words, climate change impacts such as sea-level rise or drought are threatening their very existence). For many, adaptation is not a choice; it is already necessary and without assistance from the international community, funds are being diverted from other pressing development needs. There is an urgent need for more assistance and support, which many hope will be a major part of the new agreement forged in Copenhagen.
Both the US and China expressed their support for the Bali Action Plan, daring one to be hopeful that greatness can be achieved by 2009. Mozambique summed up the urgency for success in these negotiations: “If we lose this opportunity we cannot win this battle.”
The minister from France proposed a set of three principles to guide this plan towards Copenhagen: Responsibility, Equity, and Pragmatism. Tackling climate change will require a “new paradigm of collective security and development.”
One of the best was the Philippines’, which was rich with clear proposals and examples of success. They also spoke of the importance of civil society and activism, praising NGOs for their “persistence and passion,” their “ubiquitous connections to grassroots stakeholders” and their role in keeping governments accountable. Call me biased (I am!), but I thought that was well deserved. It’s not often ordinary dedicated citizens get credit for the important role they play in these processes.
From a more critical angle, despite many interesting interventions the day was also largely full of countries talking about (and mostly to) themselves. For a debate that was supposed to be about how the UN can be most effective in responding to climate change and “delivering as one” by co-ordinating the climate work of its many bodies and agencies, there were surprisingly few suggestions. Furthermore, the pre-scripted statement format barred any opportunity to discuss the items that actually were proposed.
(I’ll put this in brackets to emphasise my disappointment and demote its importance: My own country, Canada, delivered a very misleading and empty speech with a minimum of effort, but that’s to be expected now, sadly. I’ve got a thorough dissection of the text if anyone is interested. )
So, to sum up (sorry, that wasn’t actually brief at all! J), the agreement reached in Bali has left us an awful lot of work for the next two years. The UN and its agencies are very keen to support this in every way that they can but, to paraphrase Yvo DeBoer, it’s up to countries now. Or, as the EU put it, “the UN is the sum of its member states and it is up to us to determine the size of this sum.”
So, let’s get out there and make sure our countries deliver!!