Moving climate talks forward: new parliamentary group consider the options

Global climate negotiations are at an impasse. How can we get around it? A new All-Party Parliamentary Group discusses the options

News, 30 November 2010

Last week (Tuesday 23 November), the Development and Environment Group of Bond launched a new All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for international development and the environment. The group hopes to nurture discussion to ensure that development policy is rooted in environmental stewardship and that environment policy takes full account of the needs of the poor.

The new group marked its birth by hosting a lively seminar — attended by 60 people, including 18 lords and members of parliament — on the expected outcomes of the upcoming climate talks in Cancun, Mexico, and their implications for the poor.

Guest speakers from across the world of nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) began by highlighting the links between environment, climate change and poverty eradication. David Norman, the World Wildlife Fund’s director of campaigns, said “the impacts of climate change will happen through natural resources...on which many, many hundreds of millions of poor people depend.” He described a small Brazilian village on the banks of the Amazon that relies almost exclusively on the river and forest for their food, water, medical supplies and livelihoods.

Laura Webster, head of policy at Tearfund, told the meeting that climate change can be devastating to development — she described small-scale farmers in Africa that are losing their livelihoods because they cannot adapt to changing rainfall patterns.

An impossible impasse?

“Why are we stuck?” asked Michael Meacher, MP “Why are we stuck?” asked Michael Meacher, MP.

It may be clear that action on climate change is needed, but are we likely to get it? Camilla Toulmin, director of the International Institute for Environment and Development, thinks not any time soon. She said that while we can expect some progress in Cancun on a few issues such as REDD+, there is little hope of negotiators striking a global deal.

The question, according to Michael Meacher, Labour MP, is why? And what can we do about it? He reminded the meeting that we are at an impasse in global negotiations. “If the evidence is so clear — and it is — why are we stuck? Why aren’t governments doing so much more?” he asked.

He then challenged the room to find ways around the impasse. “What are the alternative ways by which we can get the best movement, bearing in mind that the most obvious channels are closed?”

Communication, communication, communication

There was no shortage of suggestions. Some came from Meacher himself, including the idea of international, large-scale consumer boycotts organised by key NGOs working together. Others came from the floor — according to peer John Montagu what we really need is a carbon tax that significantly increases the price of using oil and makes ordinary consumers feel the pinch in their shopping bag.

The key speakers also made suggestions. Jude Mackenzie, the associate director of advocacy and communications at Christian Aid, said that “the only way forward is the massive shift in public opinion that is necessary to cause democratic governance and business to change”. This means mobilising voters and consumers in the developed world. NGOs can help by, for example, working in churches to communicate the importance of action on climate change.

A ‘four degree world’ could increase temperatures by 12 degrees in some regions A ‘four degree world’ could increase temperatures by 12 degrees in some regions
Credit: Met Office

The media also has a big role to play in galvanising people into action. “What we’re getting from the media at the moment is a 50/50 message — as if 50 per cent of experts think climate change is a problem and 50 per cent think it isn’t — but we know that the statistics are nothing like that and what the media should be saying is that climate change is a massive problem and nearly everybody who knows what they’re talking about thinks so”, said Mackenzie.

Toulmin agreed on the need for better communication, particularly when it comes to the potential consequences of climate change. For example, by the end of this century, we could well be living in a world that is hotter by, on average, 4°C. But this does not, as some people think, mean that everywhere will warm by only four degrees. “A ‘four degree world’ gives you temperature rises of 5, 8, 10, 12 degrees in many parts of the land surface... which is horrific,” explained Toulmin. “We somehow have to find a way in which we can communicate much better the consequence of what might otherwise look like quite reasonable impacts,” she said.

Scare tactics

Toulmin offered an alternative approach to get round the impasse. “Rational argument has its limits,” she said. But the rising interest in the ‘green economy’ could make countries act. “We have been asking ourselves how we can use the energy that China, for example, has for its incredibly ambitious low carbon growth plans to frighten Europe and the United States that they’re going to be left out of the 21st century economy”.

Both Europe and the United States have much to fear from not being on top of the green industrial innovations happening in China and elsewhere. China is investing heavily in a new generation of power stations incorporating clean coal technologies, and wind, solar and biomass technologies are developing rapidly. Toulmin hopes that there are now enough people in the US innovation sector worried about being left behind to put real pressure on the US administration and counterbalance ‘older’ industries such as coal and gas.

It is clear that there are no easy means of achieving an international agreement on climate change. But even if expectations of the Cancun talks are low, the discussion at Tuesday’s meeting shows we have not run out of options yet. A global deal on climate change could still be possible and there are still plenty of opportunities for NGOs — and MPs — to play a role in making it happen.