This post by Naveeda Khan is part a series from the members of the AAA delegation at the UN Climate Change Conference in Bonn, Germany.
I decided to stay home in my little garden apartment in Bonn Zentrum. Something about the COP negotiation process is like a drug. It sucks you in, makes you think every aspect of it is very important. It necessitates scanning the screens with the changing programs of the day for any new change, running from one side event to another, rushing to meet people in a flurry of urgency and excitement, and trying to score one of the rare tickets given to civil society observers (I am among them) to sit in on the informal consultations among Parties (read “nation states”) that happen between the official opening and closing of the COP.
But what are the negotiators busy doing? They have been tasked to create a rulebook by 2018 to implement the Paris Agreement by 2020. They are hell bent on producing – are you ready – the headings and subheadings that will go under each of the major topics covered by the agreement (mitigation, adaptation, transparency, implementation and compliance and global stocktake). I have now sat in on several informal sessions in which Parties gave statements on whether the right column (read “headings”) is acceptable or not and whether we can move on to provide content on the left column (read “subheadings”). I know this is the process and, as I said, it is kind of addictive. It becomes like a game to figure out bloc positions from Party statements to sense any overall shifts in the wider political landscape. I can’t help but think that the activists are right, that the urgency of pre-2020 actions is missing (see my earlier blog). It is still being deliberated by the COP presidency where this discussion should take place. It is, what is called in COP lingo, a “homeless” topic.
Another homeless topic is “loss and damage.” This refers to the harms being produced by climate change after science provided irrefutable evidence of the link between specific human actions and climate change. Note that this link has only been made definitively since 1997 so we can’t charge early humans with loss and damage for their part in megafaunal extinction. “Loss” carries the sense of something permanent and “damage” the sense of something that might yet be scaled back with concerted effort. It is a complicated topic and is perhaps the reason for its homelessness. The negotiating process may never be able to raise itself from the quagmire of loss and damage to make progress on the Paris rulebook. The UN Secretariat and its facilitators are nothing if not pragmatic.
Yet one may not realize that this issue is homeless by looking at the numbers of researchers, experts, consultants and Parties generating books, reports, frameworks and indices on the topic. Since I initially heard of the issue in 2015, there has been an exponential rise in the knowledge being generated on this topic. Every third person I speak to at the COP says that they are “following” loss and damage. When I first mentioned it to my colleagues in the U.S., they thought I was speaking of reparations, similar to that for slavery, because that is the context of loss and damage within the U.S. They felt it a moot issue perhaps because of our collective failure to put our minds around the extent of liability and compensation involved in the institution of slavery.
It was this kind of thinking that led the U.S. as a very powerful Party at the Conference to insist that the inclusion of loss and damage within the Paris Agreement (Article 8) be qualified by a decision to have it never include liability or compensation. But guess what? The U.S. is pulling out of the Paris Agreement and, with its notably subdued presence across the negotiating process (although not among the U.S. civil society and subnationals as has been blogged by Shirley and Julie), loss and damage is back in the air. While still not on the agenda for this COP, the hope among many country delegates, civil society observers and activist groups around that world is that ratcheting up the pressure on loss and damage might allow it to become a permanent agenda of the UN, and not just in the COPs. The Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage, a standing committee that is currently an underfinanced and un-empowered, may finally become the engine for pre-2020 ambitions. To temporarily divest myself of engagement with the COP process and reinvest in unofficial, even illegitimate actions, peoples, and hopes, I took the day off.
Naveeda Khan is an associate professor of anthropology at Johns Hopkins University. She works on riverine communities in Bangladesh as they navigate living on moving land and has been studying the COP process for the last three years.