UNwelcome: The Gap between Science and the Negotiations

During my time in Katowice, Poland, I set out to get a better handle on how science and policy intertwine at the COP. After all, science is supposed to be the foundation for the work of the UNFCCC and the COP. But functionally, to what extent is climate science really the basis upon which the negotiations are built?

Any discussion on how science underlies the COP should begin with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the UN body for assessing climate science. The COP process stays up to date with the state of climate science with reports that the IPCC compiles and releases every few years. While the IPCC does not generate new science, it compiles the work of thousands of scientists around the world into comprehensive reports that provide governments with climate science information to help them create climate policies. According to the IPCC, this work is “policy-relevant but not policy-prescriptive”; it provides only scientific information, and no policy recommendations for how to use that information.

In October 2018, the IPCC released its most recent report, the Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C (hereafter abbreviated as SR1.5). In conjunction with the Paris Agreement in 2015, the COP invited the IPCC to write this report to assess the impacts of climate change when average global warming reaches 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. SR1.5 details a number of key findings, including that global warming is likely to reach 1.5°C between 2030 and 2052 if it continues at its current rate. Moreover, according to the report, limiting warming to 1.5°C by the end of the century is possible, but modeled pathways that have no or limited overshoot require rapid declines in CO2 emissions by about 45% from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching net zero emissions around 2050. Furthermore, warming of 1.5°C is projected to increase climate-related risks in a wide range of ways (e.g. health, food security, water supply, economic growth) as well as result in impacts such as increased drought, famine, and ecosystem destruction; at 2°C these risks and impacts increase even further. You can watch a trailer for SR1.5 below.

A trailer for the IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5ºC, which was shown at a large plenary session centered on the report at COP24.

Given the grim nature of this report, I thought that, at the COP, both the report and its implied urgency would be embraced as a call to action to move forward in the climate negotiations with ambition and speed. And the COP was indeed organized in a fashion that seemed to suggest this: the IPCC had a larger presence at the conference this year with its own pavilion for the first time, as well as multiple events and side events that centered on or pulled from the results of the report. In particular, there was a large plenary event focused entirely on the findings of SR1.5 and gave the Parties an opportunity to ask questions directly to members of the IPCC. At this event, and throughout the conference, a mantra was repeated that boiled down the report to three simple statements: “Every bit of warming matters. Every year matters. Every choice matters.” The IPCC also emphasized that, while the report’s findings were rather grave, there is no geophysical reason why we can’t limit warming to 1.5°C; rather, it is all down to political will, and it is the responsibility of governments to act in response to the science presented.

“And with their science in hand, the Parties set aside their differences and worked together to solve this urgent climate crisis,” is how I would have liked to end this post. Reality was not quite as clean-cut, unfortunately. Despite the strong presence of the IPCC at the COP (and even the doling out of cake for the IPCC’s 30th birthday), the report that, in my mind, should have served as the foundation for increased ambition and cooperation moving forward, was instead a point of contention between the Parties. During the last negotiation that I attended at the COP, disagreement was running rampant between Parties about whether to change their negotiating text from stating that the Parties “note” the IPCC’s SR1.5 to stating that they “welcome” SR1.5 and its findings. There was widespread support among Parties for this change, which was proposed by the Maldives, but four countries prevented consensus on this wording change: the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Kuwait. To much applause, delegate Rueanna Haynes of St. Kitts and Nevis eloquently summed up the absurdity of the situation as follows: “This is not a choice between one word and another. This is us, as the UNFCCC, being in a position to welcome a report that we requested, that we invited [scientists] to prepare. So it seems to me that if there is anything ludicrous about the discussion that is taking place, it is that we in this body are not in a position to welcome the report.” Despite her impassioned statement, there was no agreement on that portion of the text, and the resolution was postponed to the next meeting in 2019 of the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA).

Rueanna Haynes of Saint Kitts and Nevis discussing the ludicrousness of not “welcoming” the IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5ºC. (Photo: Timothy Arvan)

It was disheartening to see the Parties unable to all embrace the findings of SR1.5, and to instead see some of them work to undermine the legitimacy of that science. If they could not even agree on their relationship to the science they requested, it would seem even less likely that they could agree on using that science as a foundation for ambition and urgency in achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement. The science is settled—rapid and profound changes need to occur on a global scale in order to limit global warming to 1.5°C—and so too does it seem that some Parties are settled in their ways of putting their own agendas ahead of the world. And with their science set aside, the Parties carried on with their own ambitions in the face of the urgent climate crisis.

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