Doha Climate Talks: First Farce, then Tragedy

The lead-up to COP18 which started in Doha, Qatar this week, would have been farcical, if not for the tragic reminder from Hurricane Sandy that climate change is deadly, and is already upon us.

But for a moment, let’s appreciate the ironies:

Rio+20, “The Future We Want,” summit in June of this year was declared a failure on almost all counts. The tepid commitments, all voluntary, sound exactly like the future fossil fuel industries want. But in Doha, under the mandate of the UNFCCC, parties will agree on issues like finance, carbon markets, and REDD+.

Protester in Rio, June 2012.

Sounds reasonable? Think twice- COP18 is in Qatar, an OPEC nation with some of the highest emissions per capita that has been barely involved in climate negotiations. International campaigners Avaaz posted, “having one of the OPEC leaders in charge of climate talks is like asking Dracula to look after a blood bank.”

At least we can turn to our “climate leaders,” like the EU. Turns out the debt crisis has our European friends a little distracted from their climate commitments. Spain, Germany, Italy, the U.K. and France have all cut aid to renewables.

Well there are some “easy” issues to resolve in Doha, like fund transfers from wealthy countries to developing countries for mitigation and adaptation, right? But the farce continues- just in time for the conference to start, an international report finds that most wealthy countries are falling embarrassingly short of their commitments thus far for fund transfers. So much for the easy stuff.

Okay, at least they off-set their emissions! 25k metric tons of carbon was “eliminated” in the CDM carbon market to off-set 10,000 participants traveling to Doha. Yet this comes amidst mounting evidence that the carbon markets are broken, with the value of credits in the CDM plunging 93% in two years, and the EU system failing to reduce emissions. (I’ll spare the gory details of CDM’s social injustice.)

Yet, somehow in the fracas, carbon speculators are optimistic for Doha. Unlike the negotiators, they’ve figured out they can still make a handsome profit even if emissions don’t drop. In the rush to appease and appeal to business interests, negotiators have bought into a “Green Economy” narrative, where climate solutions are reduced to financial and technological fixes. REDD+, CDM, and other carbon offsets allow industrialized countries to avoid shifting their economies off fossil fuels, and speculators in new carbon markets reap the rewards.

The Doha skyline.

The choice of some climate justice groups to skip the trip to Doha is looking better and better.

So is the COP system broken? Can we expect anything out of Doha? With Sandy barely behind us, and more storms on the horizon, a meaningful U.N. process may feel like our last hope. However most major decisions are mapped out in preparatory meetings, such as those in Bonn and Bangkok this year.  While the presence of critical voices is important, so far the COPs have proven to leave out indigenous peoples, youth, and others most impacted by climate change.  We can’t count on negotiators to broker our future with fossil fuel corporations.

The recent position paper from Focus on the Global South offers a critique and an alternative: “The capitalist system is seeking to get out of this economic crisis through a process of reconfiguration that implies a new process of exploitation of humans and nature… …To confront the interests and power of corporations, our struggle must have as starting point the daily life of the people affected by climate change and not the UNFCCC negotiations.”

Around the world, more and more people are connecting the dots and challenging the root causes of climate change and false solutions. From the Tar Sands Blockade in Texas, to First Nations in British Columbia, to indigenous communities impacted by REDD+ in Mexico, people are taking a stand for their communities and ecology. As Hurricane Sandy showed, if we aren’t already, we all may soon be on the frontlines of climate change.

As Focus on the Global South writes, “A ‘one size fits all’ model like neoliberalism or centralized bureaucratic socialism is not the answer. Instead, diversity should be expected and encouraged, as it is in nature.” Real solutions come from the grassroots.

4 Responses to “Doha Climate Talks: First Farce, then Tragedy”

  1. 1 mkatieobrien Nov 27th, 2012 at 9:15 pm


    I am here in Doha with Earth in Brackets (check out our following of the negotiations here: a student group from College of the Atlantic who studies international environmental politics and diplomacy. I agree that the bureaucratic system and economic influences of COPs can be disheartening and seem ineffective but I did want to make some background about the process that seemed to be misrepresented in this post and also include some considerations.

    The first is that you mention a deferment of Rio+20 issues to Doha. While both Rio+20 and Doha are part of the environmental regimes of the UN, they cover different subjects and have different mandates. Rio+20 is Convention on Sustainable Development (CSD) whereas the Doha talks are the 18th Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). These are related issues but are not the same and are addressed in different ways – because of this the unfinished agenda items of Rio+20 cannot be moved into the UNFCCC negotiations unless they are deemed unrelated to the mandate of CSD. Further, the CSD does not have any legally-binding standing whereas the UNFCCC comes from a treaty that was ratified by all parties and therefore has legal standing.

    You suggest that all the major decisions of the COP are decided in the intersessionals in Bonn and Bangkok. While the majority of the negotiating and getting down to work happens at these, decisions cannot be made. So, yes, this sounds like there is less of a chance to change policy but really all the final deal making occurs at the COPs when the parties must actually write decisions and negotiate. Really, Bonn and Bangkok provide essential ground work and preparedness for the delegates to make decisions and civil society has been present at these meetings, voicing their opinion.

    Also COPs do not leave indigenous and youth groups out. Already the youth have given intervention speeches in every track and body that meets at the COP. There are many youth groups here participating in actions, working on policy, and learning about the UNFCCC process. Sure youth under the age of 18 aren’t allowed in, but this is true of all UN meetings. I am less familiar with indigenous groups because I am not part of one, but I have seen many indigenous groups and members. Of course we do not have final say on the decisions, but really this makes sense since the current political system of the world requires governments–and not individual citizens–to ratify treaties. I’m curious as to what alternate forum you would suggest for the entire world to discuss this problem? Don’t take this as a critique of your suggestion for more grassroots participation, I am in full support of that. However, I think it is still important to consider how effective alternatives would be. One model you could look at is the Civil Society Mechanism of the FAO’s Committee on World Food Security (CFS).

    Finally, I would like to mention that there are some big stakes in Doha. As the Kyoto Protocol’s first commitment period ends this December and the working group on Long-term Cooperative Agreement (working on an agreement that not only addresses emissions but also adaptation, finance, capacity building and technology transfer) closes, Parties are forming the a new track for an agreement in 2015 and Doha will decide what gets included in this new track. Stakes are high and we could see the end of any glimmer of equity and ambition coming from the Parties, but we also can help in the fight to make sure that the principles of the convention are remembered and direct the proceedings in a more equitable and ambitious direction. Because of this I don’t think we can write off the climate negotiations as farce and tragedy just yet.

    Do I honestly believe that the outcomes of the UNFCCC will build a climate just world? No, they cannot fix the world by themselves and are an inherently broken system, but part of the fight is up to ourselves, as the constituencies of the governments who represent us at these talks, to look at our own role within the inequity and injustices that developed nations are imposing upon developing nations. As students in developed nations we must demand that our countries aim for more ambitious and equitable outcomes and we must be willing to dramatically change our own lifestyles. The UNFCCC has had ambitious goals before–see the Bali Action Plan–now we must demand that our countries adhere to those agreements they have made before and we must work both in and outside the systems to ensure that these happen. If we leave the UNFCCC we are not fighting for ambition and equity and the voices calling for this in the conference center will become quieter and quieter, leading to a dangerous silence.

    -Katie O’Brien
    Earth in Brackets

  2. 2 Martha Pskowski Nov 28th, 2012 at 12:01 am

    Hi Katie,

    Thank you for your thoughtful comments. As someone who is not attending COP18 I know there are many aspects to the negotiations which I don’t have insight to. My primary intention in writing this piece was to stimulate conversation among youth in the U.S. about the talks in Doha, and I was surprised to see no other pieces on IGHIH.

    Your comments lead to two over-arching questions I have:
    A) Whether the observer role of civil society in the UNFCCC can lead to a dramatic shift in commitments and follow-through, both of which are necessary to avert the worst of climate change, or will only allow incremental adjustments, with the stamp of “civil society approval.” This is the difference between being “consulted” and being able to set the agenda.
    B). Whether the national-sovereignty framework of the negotiations can protect the rights of those most impacted by climate change, often the poor and/or indigenous people who lack political representation.

    Replying to your specific points:

    Your clarification on the CSD is important, and I will better elaborate the connection I was attempting to make. The UNFCCC and the UNCSD were both formed in 1992, and address many of the same critical questions. Additionally, side and parallel events have become increasingly important in both the COPs and CSD. Even if an issue is not within the mandate of one of these bodies, strategically significant proceedings take place in side events, and trickle into the next conference.

    Regarding preparatory meetings: While the legal decisions are made in Doha, the realm of possibility is set in preparatory meetings. I would be happy to hear an example of a final agreement in a COP which was dramatically more ambitious than the preparatory documents, but I have yet to come across one. Yes, civil society can attend preparatory events but flying around the globe to do so is generally only accessible to the best-funded NGOs, and many developing nations even struggle to finance delegations. For example, Rio+20 preparatory meetings took place in New York City and were conducted in English, which gave NYC and Washington DC NGOs a high level of access, while marginalizing groups in the Global South.

    I would encourage you to learn more about the history of indigenous people within the UNFCCC. I’d recommend “Agency in international climate negotiations” by Heike Schroeder. Many indigenous groups face repression and marginalization in their own nation, and are not represented on the negotiating team. This is one reason the 2004 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People assures the right to “Free Prior and Informed Consent” (FPIC) in development projects. Indigenous groups must rely on unofficial avenues for participation in the UNFCCC, and are more likely to organize transnationally. No matter how strong a network, these groups (like Indigenous Environmental Network) will not have an official negotiating role. Why does this matter? UNFCCC programs like REDD+ largely impact indigenous people, who are more likely to live in or rely on forests, and indigenous communities are often most vulnerable to climate change. However indigenous people are not mentioned in the climate convention or Kyoto. In the case of REDD+ their right to FPIC has been tacked onto the program, but it’s unclear whether projects are complying.

    I also see very little discussion of how commitments are to be implemented in “fragile states” where people lack confidence in the government. This is playing out in REDD+, where national commitments conflict with local disputes over land and resources. The national-sovereignty framework of the UNFCCC washes over the distinctions within nations, and it’s generally those with the least political power (indigenous, the poor, women) who are overlooked.

    I agree that important decisions are at stake in Doha and I respect people who have chosen to participate. However I want to raise questions as to the general legitimacy of these proceedings and whether they can in fact represent the interests of those most impacted by climate change. What keeps U.S. negotiators bound to the play-book of tepid commitments, market-fixes, and deferred action? Our negotiators need pressure, yes, but I think we must look beyond the negotiating table and ask why the deck is stacked against us, year after year. Climate justice movements are building political power amongst those on the frontlines of climate change, and creating change in a way the UNFCCC has not achieved, in 20 years, for these communities.


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