COP25 Was a Failure, But Activists’ Collective Organizing at the Talks Was Unprecedented
The COP25 United Nations climate summit ended in failure Sunday, after negotiators failed to agree to a deal that would limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels — a key goal of the Paris Agreement. Scores of civil society groups condemned governments in the European Union, Australia, Canada and the U.S. for a deal that requires far less action than needed to avert catastrophic climate change. Indigenous leaders and environmentalists blasted the United Nations for marginalizing civil society groups over two weeks of negotiations at the climate summit, while welcoming polluters. For more on the outcome of the U.N. climate summit, we speak with Asad Rehman, executive director of War on Want, and Tasneem Essop, executive director of the Climate Action Network International.
AMY GOODMAN: We are just back from Madrid, Spain, where COP25, the United Nations climate summit, ended in a monumental failure Sunday, after negotiators failed to agree to a deal that would limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, above pre-industrial levels, a key goal of the Paris Agreement. Scores of civil society groups condemned governments in the European Union, Australia, Canada and the United States for a deal that requires far less action than needed to avert catastrophic climate change. Alden Meyer, the strategy chief at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said, quote, “Never have I seen the almost total disconnect we’ve seen here at COP25 in Madrid between what the science requires and what the climate negotiations are delivering in terms of meaningful action.” Ian Fry, the climate negotiator for the Pacific island nation of Tuvalu, whose existence is threatened by rising sea levels due to global warming, called out the United States, which worked to water down the final agreement even though President Trump is withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris Agreement.
IAN FRY: This is an absolute tragedy and a travesty on those affected by the impacts of climate change. There are millions of people all around the world who are already suffering from the impacts of climate change. Denying this fact could be interpreted by some to be a crime against humanity. Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: Environmentalists and indigenous leaders blasted the United Nations for marginalizing civil society groups over two weeks of negotiations at the climate summit, sometimes kicking them out of the summit, while welcoming polluters. This is Kera Sherwood-O’Regan, a Maori representative from the Indigenous Peoples Organizations at the COP.
KERA SHERWOOD-O’REGAN: When you silence us, you deny yourselves learning from our ways, and you continue to sideline those who have real solutions for all communities. We are experts on climate. We are the kaitiaki, the stewards of nature. We know the legitimacy of our voices, and it’s about time that you recognized it, too. Hear our stories. Learn our histories. Stop taking up space with your false solutions and get out of our way.
AMY GOODMAN: For more on the outcome of the U.N. climate summit, we’re joined by two guests who were there. Now in London, Asad Rehman is executive director of War on Want. And from Cape Town, South Africa, Tasneem Essop is executive director of the Climate Action Network International. She’s joining us via Democracy Now! video stream.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Tasneem, let’s begin with you. You were there right through to the end. You organized the response on Sunday when the final COP closed. Can you talk about why it’s being described as a monumental failure, even by negotiators, and then, though, the success or the unprecedented level of organizing that’s going on, coming out of this summit?
TASNEEM ESSOP: Yes, Amy. Thank you very much for having me on the show. For once, I think, across the board, many parties and civil society organizations and activists from different constituencies — the trade union movement, indigenous peoples, women and gender — have had one voice about the outcome of this COP, and that it is a failure. The clear gap between the reality on the outside of this process, whether that is the science that’s become clearer with the 1.5 report, whether it is the voices of many citizens in many countries across the world demanding a response to the climate emergency, and, in addition to that, the impacts already being felt in countries across the world — the disconnect inside the halls of the UNFCCC with key countries, like the U.S., Australia, Japan, was phenomenal. And not only were these countries the key blockers in the process, we also had Brazil added to that mix, as well. And so, it’s very clear that the commitment to addressing this climate emergency and, in fact, the commitment to the Paris Agreement was not demonstrated at all. And this outcome clearly points in that direction.
AMY GOODMAN: You mention Brazil. Now let’s talk about the history of this particular COP, conference of parties. The 25th Conference of Parties was supposed to be held in Brazil, but then the man many call the “Trump of Brazil,” the right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro, in one of his first acts, canceled the COP in Brazil. It was then moved to Chile, and the right-wing president there, in the midst of a social upheaval like Chile hasn’t seen in decades, the protests that are going on there, he canceled the COP, but Chile still presided over the COP in Madrid, Spain. It was last — it was moved there in the last weeks. So, you have Jair Bolsonaro, a climate denier, and you have President Trump. Now, Trump is pulling the U.S. out of that Paris climate agreement. It would officially be pulled out the day after the election next year. Yet how did they wield so much power at this COP?
TASNEEM ESSOP: Well, they still have — they’re not out of the process yet. That will happen next year officially. And they wielded a lot of power. There were stories about negotiators in the loss and damage negotiations saying they were literally being bullied by the U.S. negotiators. So they’ve played an extremely destructive role, particularly in the loss and damage negotiations pertaining to finance for loss and damage. And so, you know, this is unbelievable. It’s —
AMY GOODMAN: And explain — I’m always trying to break down U.N. language — loss and damage.
TASNEEM ESSOP: Well, this is the impacts of climate change, the losses that you would have, as we’re already witnessing across the world, whether through floods, the damage that is experienced through devastating typhoons, as we’ve seen, for example, in the Philippines, the devastation caused by fires, as we have seen in Australia. So it’s the losses and the damages related to that. It’s not only about the extreme events like these that cause loss and damage, but something called slow onset. So, sea level rise, for example, would be a slow onset; it’s not an extreme event that happens all at once. And this is exactly what the small island states are talking about in terms of their survival. Already they’re experiencing sea level rise, and many are being forced to move. So, displacement and migrancy is also part of the impacts of climate change that would need to be addressed.
AMY GOODMAN: Asad Rehman, we’re speaking to you in London. You actually left a few days before the end of the summit yesterday, because you went back to London to deal with, well, the election that took place there, the landslide election for the Prime Minister Boris Johnson over the Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn, what some, like George Monbiot, have called the “climate election.” Others called it Brexit. But can you talk about, in your time there — and we see you every year at these climate summits — the significance of why this year was so devastating and so monumentally a failure?
ASAD REHMAN: Well, I mean, we come into these climate talks with governments having an unprecedented mandate from their citizens. If we remember, millions of people have been marching on the streets calling on their governments to take action, to take urgent action, on the climate emergency. We’ve seen the scale of the impacts fill our television screens in every single country in the world. We’ve seen the impacts of floods and droughts and famines. And, of course, at the same time, we’ve also seen unprecedented protests taking place around the world about economic inequality. It’s clear that the world is broken. Governments needed to act.
So you would have expected governments to come knowing that this was a critical moment and to come with ambition. And instead, we saw the United States, aided and abetted by other rich developed countries, take a wrecking ball to those outcomes. So, first of all, governments came not willing to take action in terms of the lost decade, when they’ve literally done nothing in the previous decade, which has meant that the critical actions that are required in the coming decade are much, much harder. They came attempting to block any support for poorer developing countries, as you’ve just heard from Tasneem. I mean, this is absolutely outrageous.
And what they were actually asking for, not just the United States, but the European Union, as well, is basically to have no liability for the damage that their inaction is causing. And more heinous than that is not only are they not putting anything on the table in terms of genuine emission reductions or the desperately needed finance; what they wanted was loopholes, so that their big polluting companies could continue to pollute, loopholes that would basically bust the budget for the 1.5-degree guard rail. So we’re coming here with governments with no willingness to act and actually acting not in the interests of their citizens, but acting in the interests of their big polluting companies. And it was an absolute disaster.
So the question now we must ask ourselves is: What will it take for our voices to be heard? Now, the climate talks move to the U.K. in 2020. It’s an unprecedented moment. We’re at the end of the decade, the lost decade, and now we’re in the beginning of the new decade. If governments don’t come with that willingness, then — which we can only as citizens force them and hold our own governments to account at a national level so that they come with the right mandates — I think we’re talking about not just losing the 1.5 degree, but the 2 degree. And just to put that in context — because I totally agree with you, sometimes these climate words don’t quite have the resonance — but the difference between the Ice Age and now was only 4 degrees. And already in the pledges that we’ve got for the Paris Agreement, we’re seeing warming that will lead to 3 degrees. We have absolutely no idea of what the world will look like. But what we can say is that the impacts on the poorest people, on the most vulnerable around the world, will be absolutely devastating.
AMY GOODMAN: You’re on the committee for Glasgow next year, where COP26 will take place. So explain the significance of this five-year period from the Paris climate accord and what it means if President Trump succeeds in pulling the U.S. out. It will be a day after the election. It’ll be before the Glasgow summit.
ASAD REHMAN: Yes, it will be before the Glasgow summit. So, the Glasgow summit is seen as a critical moment, when either governments will come with a promise to increase their weak pledges for the 2020 to 2030, which is formally when the so-called Paris Agreement kicks in — they have to come with more willingness to be able to put finance on the table and to recognize that the support that’s needed, the so-called loss and damage, needs to be moved forward. And even after 40 hours of an extended climate negotiations, which limped across the finishing line, much of the decisions were then kicked into touch and were left for next year. So next year is really a make or break. And I think, genuinely, people will ask themselves after COP26, if it doesn’t deliver the ambition: What is that U.N. process for? And how do we actually genuinely get more action? Because, clearly, our governments are not being able to deliver it in the U.N. process.
AMY GOODMAN: This is a youth activist from the Polish Ecological Club addressing the climate negotiators on that final day, Sunday, of negotiations.
ZUZANNA BOROWSKA: Civil society has been shut out of this COP. Our lives, children and future generations are in your hands, and you are failing us. Do you want to be remembered as the ones who had the chance to act but decided not to, as betrayers of our generation, of indigenous people and of communities desperately fighting on the ground? We are rising. We are fighting. And we will win. COPs have failed the people and the planet. People power. Climate justice now. Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s a youth activist from the Polish Ecological Club addressing the negotiators on Sunday. In Madrid, Spain, the COP ended on Sunday. And I wanted to go to The Washington Post, which is reporting a growing number of Americans describe climate change as a crisis. Two-thirds say President Trump is doing too little to tackle the problem. The results from a poll conducted by The Washington Post and Kaiser Family Foundation point to a growing disconnect between Americans worried about the warming planet and Trump administration officials who aggressively scaled back Obama-era environmental regulations and relinquished the nation’s role as a global leader in pushing for climate action. Now, the numbers are amazing. The poll finds — this, again, is from The Washington Post — that a strong majority of Americans, about eight in 10, say human activity is fueling climate change, and roughly half believe action is urgently needed within the next decade if humanity is to avert its worst effects. Nearly four in 10 now say climate change is a crisis, up from less than a quarter five years ago. Tasneem Essop in Cape Town, South Africa, we give you the last word here, and it is around the awareness especially young people have brought to the world around the urgency of this problem, and where you see that activism going now, even if the COP was a monumental failure.
TASNEEM ESSOP: Yes. We recognize that this is going to be in our hands. So, citizens across the world, the youth, indigenous, women, the workers, all of us have to be united. It is amazing, the youth leadership on this issue in the past year, of course, putting the issue of the science firmly on the agenda, the fact that we are in a climate emergency. And so, together with the rising up of young people today and the very many, many peoples across the world who have been fighting this on the frontlines, who have been losing their lives for protecting the environment and to address, you know, the extractive industries, like the fossil fuel companies, destroying the planet, and have sacrificed their lives for this, this kind of growing unity is becoming more and more clear and stronger.
And I think, as Asad said, linked to the protests on the economic injustices and the social injustices, I think that what we can witness and what we’re going to witness is much bigger, powerful movements across the world and holding their governments into account. But not only just accountability, there has to be consequences for the inaction. So I think, Amy, we are going to see, I believe, much stronger movements. They’re not going to tolerate inaction by their governments, whether — you know, not just developed countries, but in all of the countries. The major emitters, like South Africa, for example, will also be witnessing movements against the kind of continued use of coal in the country. So, yeah, I think that the hope now will have to come from us, the people. And some of this unity was already demonstrated in the UNFCCC process now in the past two weeks. And it can only grow stronger and stronger.
AMY GOODMAN: Tasneem Essop, I want to thank you for being with us, executive director of the Climate Action Network International, speaking to us from Cape Town, South Africa, where she has just arrived back from the Madrid COP, and Asad Rehman, executive director of War on Want, speaking to us from London. To see all of our coverage of the U.N. climate summit — we’ve just returned from Madrid — you can go to democracynow.org.