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Journey to Tianjin, China

October 13, 2010

Opening Plenary at the UNFCCC

For the week of October 4-9, I was lucky enough to travel to Tianjin, China for the UN climate talks there.  I was part of the Adopt a Negotiator team, a group of young people from countries all over the world that attend the meetings of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), to track the negotiating teams for their countries and blog about what’s happening at the conferences.  I got to track the United States delegation- you can read more information about my impressions of the conference, the U.S. negotiating position and what happened in Tianjin here.  The Adopt a Negotiator project is part of the Global Campaign for Climate Action, a coalition of many different NGOs concerned about climate change, which is widely known by the name of its website

The week-long conference in Tianjin was an intersessional, one of several meetings that the UNFCCC holds between its yearly summits, called COPs (Conference of the Parties).  Country negotiators don’t actually have the power to make any binding decisions at these intersessionals, unlike at the yearly COP meetings where treaties like the Kyoto Protocol can be signed.  Instead, negotiators spent the week discussing the draft text that will enter final negotiations this winter in Cancun, Mexico.  Any country can add text- which is why the document had ballooned to more than 70 pages over the course of this year- and negotiators worked on paring down the text to a manageable size to discuss and hopefully agree on in Cancun.

The whole experience was something completely new to me- I had never been to a UN negotiation or anything like it, and being able to see the negotiations first hand was incredibly exciting for a policy nerd like me.  Hearing the passion or frustration in the voices of the negotiators when they spoke, seeing which countries huddled up with who after a session ended- all of this really brought policy and diplomacy alive in a really refreshing way.  But the talks were also quite frustrating as well.  My job was essentially to serve as a two-way conduit: to bring information about the talks outside to activists and others back at home, and to try to convey to the U.S. negotiators the perceptions and concerns of people back at home.  As you might imagine, being from the U.S.- even as an outsider who isn’t part of the official delegation or a policymaker here- put me in a rather unique position.  As in many international fora, but particularly at the UNFCCC, most countries and their people are quite angry about the U.S. negotiating position, and what they perceive (often fairly, but sometimes not) as the United States’ lack of willingness to act decisively on climate change and stalling of the talks.

My goal at the conference was to try to give a fair representation of the U.S. position at the negotiations.  On the one hand, this often meant explaining that the United States will have to act much more forcefully if we truly want to address the issue of climate change before it’s too late and life on this planet is fundamentally altered.  This often meant highlighting the need to step up on issues like climate finance and agreeing about mitigation measures with developing countries.  On the other hand, this also meant explaining to outsiders how complicated our system of legislation is, and therefore why Congress has been having so much trouble passing comprehensive, national-level climate change legislation.  Providing finance in the form of foreign assistance to developing countries that are the least prepared for and the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change is a good example of one of these difficult dilemmas.  The U.S. is historically the largest emitter of greenhouse gases and the wealthiest nation in the world, and therefore clearly has a responsibility to assist poorer nations.  However, for unemployed Americans who are struggling to find a way to support their own family, climate finance might feel like a burden that is too large, especially during an intense economic recession.  This is a dilemma that I often collide with in my Peaceful Prevention of Deadly Conflict work lobbying Congress here at FCNL as well, and therefore one that I am quite familiar with.

One of the week’s highlights for me was actually on the very first day of the conference.  I was honored to present an intervention. (an opening speech in UN-speak) on behalf of the youth NGOs from all over the world at the opening plenary, where delegates from many countries and some NGO coalitions also present interventions.  I read from a text that was prepared by a group of Chinese youth that I helped to edit, but the ideas behind it were essentially theirs, which was why this was particularly moving experience for me.  The intervention skipped around all of the complicated policy issues and cut straight to the point- that if negotiators fail to act to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions today, it is the youth of the world who will suffer from the severe consequences as early as 2050.  I think the concluding statement really hit home the most for me: I said, “climate change action is no longer just the talk of some politicians, but more and more the missions and actions of every individual in the world.  The youth are leading through our actions, and these talks must catch up.”

Check back soon for my next post, where I’ll talk more about what it was like to be in China!

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