High-Level UN Meeting Today Starts Positive, Urgent, Affirmative

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June 29 UN high-level event on climate (screenshot)

The United Nations hosts another high-level event today Monday, June 29, in New York to help steer a widening coalition of global efforts to limit the damage and adapt to the challenges of ongoing climate change. This end-of-June meeting is not part of the critical negotiation process that will culminate in Paris COP21 with some kind of climate change agreement. However, it does provide an important gathering at high level of all interest groups on ways to combat climate change, enhance resilience, and mobilize finance at home and abroad.

The biggest news to come out yet by the midday recess is a firm announcement that Co-Chairs of the Ad-hoc Group on the Durban Platform ADP, Dr. Daniel Reifsnyder, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Environment at the US Department of State, and Ahmed Djoghlaf of Algeria, formerly assistant executive director at the UN Environment Programme, and latterly as chief of the Convention on Biological Diversity, will present a streamlined draft of the 80-some pages agreed on in Bonn.

As Ed King, RTCC’s top correspondent on the UNFCCC, has reported, “The US and Algeria have typically sat in groups diametrically opposed to each other at UN talks.” Maas Goote, the former EU chief climate negotiator, characterizes Reifsnyder as “an ace” diplomat, and Asad Rehman, climate spokesperson for Friends of the Earth International, credits Djoghlaf with the openness and transparency of UN biodiversity summits, ensuring that poorer but no less perceptive countries had a chance to propose solutions. Unfortunately, the webtv broadcast of the high-level UN meeting cut to a scheduled press conference instead of showing the brief speeches from these officials.

Sam K. Kutesa of Uganda, current President of the United Nations General Assembly, at the June 29 high-level UN meeting (screenshot)
Sam K. Kutesa of Uganda, current President of the United Nations General Assembly, at the June 29 high-level UN meeting (screenshot)

Sam K. Kutesa, a longtime Ugandan politician and current President of the United Nations General Assembly, officially opened and is hosting the high-level UN meeting. His first address stressed the increasing role of businesses and the private sector in bolstering climate negotiations, speaking of the crucial roles of investment and trade and his commitment to fair and open trade systems. Kutesa seemed heavily invested in his script, even a bit labored at a few points, but nowhere in evidence was the political weakness of his earlier support of Uganda’s campaign against homosexuality. He showed animation and much deeper knowledge of the climate field at the later press conference.

Physically slight, but a determined political heavyweight, Ban Ki-moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations, who called the high-level UN meeting, spoke second. Mr. Ban opened his remarks by saying “The stars have aligned as never before” at this time in world climate talks.

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Ban gave credit up front to several recent occurrences outside the UN context:

  • The consortium of six oil and gas companies (Shell, BP, and four other concerns) that recently called for national and regional carbon pricing and volunteered to “open direct dialogue with the U.N. and willing governments” (petrochemical manufacturer Solvay Plastics, a leading world producer of specialty polymers and vinyls, speaks later in the day for such corporate interests);
  • The G7 nations, who committed to the recent IPCC recommendation of 40% to 70% emissions reductions by 2050 compared to 2010; and
  • Pope Francis, who just presented a remarkable encyclical (“Laudato si”) to the faithful on the intertwining of world development and the necessity to limit climate damage.

Ban Ki-moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations, at the June 29 high-level UN meeting (screenshot)Having said this, Mr. Ban frankly chastised the assembly: “The pace of UNFCCC negotiations is far too slow.” He gave seven conditions that could guarantee the success of talks in Paris, the most important being mutual trust. He said this will unlock additional billions to meet the 2020 $100 billion goal of the Green Climate Fund. Finally, he asserted that climate change and sustainable development represent “two sides of the same coin” and urged the group to consider Paris not the endpoint, but the turning point of world climate talks.

Many officials and participants agree that February’s Geneva ADP meetings might have condensed the results of last year’s promising conference in Lima into a brief and negotiable draft to discuss and ratify in Paris. Geneva did whittle down the text, but not far enough. The recently concluded Bonn talks could only reduce it further by 10%, and the task of reshaping it now rests with the charming and diplomatic Reifsnyder and firmly devoted veteran Djoghlaf. Because brokered texts such as the third draft of the Lima agreement have repeatedly been rejected by strenuous dissent from blocs of nations, the success of this approach will depend on a dextrous and inclusive attempt by these negotiators, fully acknowledging the principle of common goals but differentiated means in approaching climate change.

A telling and quietly elegant speaker, Anote Tong, President of the Republic of Kiribati, comprising thousands of scattered, low-lying atolls in the Pacific, calmly acknowledged to the high-level UN meeting that the small atolls of his group face an immediate threat from sea level rise. He acknowledged the inevitable for many of these small islands and requested help in raising the islands, constructing floating artificial islands, and migrating from their homelands “with dignity.”

Mogens Lykketoft, Speaker of the Parliament of Denmark and President-elect of the upcoming 70th session of the General Assembly, announced that he is prepared to host a final meeting of high-level ministers in November. It would constitute the last opportunity for international discussion before the Paris talks.

Giving the keynote speech, Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, Minister of the Environment of Peru and President of COP20, repeated his upbeat performance as head of the Lima talks. An insistence on hope, optimism, and feasibility underlay his reassuring and nearly ad hoc discussion of the upcoming road to Paris. In it, he repeated ADP’s July 24 commitment for a new “clear and very focused” draft of the Lima agreement, which had been anticipated at Geneva and then at Bonn. He told the next speaker, president of the upcoming COP21 and Minister of Foreign Affairs of France, Laurent Fabius, he was sure of success. Fabius, forceful and engaged, repeated the commitment as a demonstration of “real will on the part of states.”

The voice of the Vatican Cardinal Peter K.A. Turkson, President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace of the Holy See and reported coauthor of the encyclical just issued by Pope Francis, stressed the gravity of the situation for the natural world and its human inhabitants. The Pope is meeting this week with climate experts, includine the fiery Naomi Klein, the Canadian author, social activist, and filmmaker who will lead these talks with him. Cardinal Turkson said that our best chances with climate change lie in the virtue of simple humility, which will remind swelled and greedy heads of the God-willed powers that truly govern the universe.

Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of UNFCCC, like Ban Ki-Moon, spoke of the unprecedented levels of support for climate mitigation and adaptation in recent months. She also pinpointed financing as the most critical factor needed and spoke of the upcoming July 24 draft as more organized, having fewer surprises, and emphasizing climate and sustainable development as indistinguishable concerns. A video of her speech is available on the UN News website.

Vuk Jeremić, President of the Center for International Relations and Sustainable Development, lauded the UN on its 70th anniversary for keeping “the general peace,” e.g., preventing another world war (although many of us regret its failure to negotiate many separate peaces among nations). “The climate knows not the borders of nations,” he said, and embraced international “solidarity.”

Xiuhtezcatl Roske Martinez, 15-yr-old spokesperson from Earth Guardians, represented civil society at the June 29 UN high-level event on climate (screenshot) Probably the most impressive speaker at the high-level UN meeting was Xiuhtezcatl Roske Martinez, the 15-yr-old spokesperson from Earth Guardians, who represented civil society and came last in the morning discussion. Martinez, a Colorado native, spoke of the wildfires and storms of his native state. “At stake right now is the existence of my generation,” he asserted. He brought up divestment, lawsuits against governments (like the recent case in the Netherlands and another brought in one of the United States), and the people’s march for climate that drew almost half a million participants last September.

The handsome teenager in the suit and tie, long hair flowing straight downward, implored his audience to “Look into our eyes [those of his generation]. Don’t be afraid to think big. The solutions are here.” He urged movement from fossil and nuclear energy toward renewables, saying “the future of energy is no longer down a hole…. The greater the challenge the higher we will rise to overcome it.”

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