U.N. Climate Talks and the Prevention of Violent Conflict

I was thrilled to attend the UN climate negotiations in Tianjin, China, this past October and the larger Conference of the Parties (COP) in Cancún, Mexico, from November 29 to December 10. I attended the talks as part of the "Adopt a Negotiator" project (www.adoptanegotiator.org), which brings young people from all over the world to the UN climate negotiations to follow their countries’ delegations and blog about their experiences. My role was also rooted in my Quaker identity.

I am currently a program assistant at Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL), a Quaker lobby on Capitol Hill that works to educate Congress and improve U.S. policy on issues of peace and social justice. My work at FCNL with our Peaceful Prevention of Deadly Conflict program has taught me how to be a Quaker witness, observing and trying to influence the national legislative process through the lens of working towards the greater global public good. I took this lens with me to Tianjin and Cancún, where I was often frustrated with the process, but also excited and encouraged by glimpses of what I viewed as reflections of Quaker principles at these gatherings.

Youth at the UNFCCC

The UN climate negotiations, known as the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), were often frustrating for me as a youth observer. The process can be opaque and difficult to follow. The international negotiators casually sling around acronyms, and they have their own vocabulary to discuss many vast and complex issues. Most of the high-level negotiations take place behind closed doors. Along with the many nongovernmental organization participants, I often found myself camped out in the corridors, locked out of the discussions.

The process often moves with excruciating slowness, as delegates can spend hours-long sessions discussing the placement of a comma or whether to use an "and" or an "or" in a certain passage of text. For a U.S. citizen, observing the climate talks can also be frustrating or even embarrassing as the U.S. delegation is often portrayed as the international laggard, unable to muster the political will to curb the effects of climate change.

At the UNFCCC, an institution that has existed in some form for about as many years as I’ve been alive, many negotiators and even NGO observers have been involved in the process for many years. The youth perspective is sorely lacking at these gatherings, and negotiators are quick to dismiss us, often declining to speak with us at all or giving perfunctory and condescending answers to our questions, assuming that we don’t understand the nuances of the negotiations. Media outlets and many NGOs are often similarly dismissive of the youth perspective, occasionally highlighting the youth presence outside the conference center (often involving elaborate costumes, placards, and chanting), but rarely giving voice to our more serious and thoughtful perspectives.

In actuality, many youth groups from all over the world were present at the negotiations. They worked intensely and for long hours to meet and make plans, draft legislative proposals, and gather intelligence about what was going on inside the discussions. Some of this hard work paid off in a big way in Cancún, where the youth NGOs were able to get some of the language they had drafted inserted into the text of Article six of the Convention, which deals with education and raising awareness on the issue of climate change.

We, the young people of today, will be the recipients of an irreparably damaged planet if the international community fails to deal with climate change. Even though young people are too often marginalized, we believe that it is essential for our voices to be heard. I was honored to offer a short "intervention" (in UN parlance, a speech on the plenary floor) at the Tianjin meeting on behalf of the youth NGOs, where I said, "We must achieve our goals for an international agreement in line with what science and justice demand; but with a growing global movement we can do this. . . .The youth are leading through our actions, and these talks must catch up." Our youth presence in global efforts to address climate change is essential, not only to remind delegates of the consequences if the negotiations fail, but also to be a source of energy and hope to push the negotiations forward.

Friends, Climate Change, and Peace

FCNL’s Energy and Environment program is working to promote legislation that will curb climate change and transition the U.S. economy to renewable energy sources. Our Peaceful Prevention of Deadly Conflict program has begun calling attention to the ways in which global warming and climate change are fueling the potential for violent conflict. If allowed to continue unabated, climate change will cause human suffering and injustice, especially for the poor and vulnerable, and increase the incidence of war globally. From a Quaker perspective it was heartening for me to watch firsthand as countries engaged in a multilateral process to try to minimize the potential effects of climate change, especially at a time when some members of the U.S. Congress are trying to keep U.S. government agencies from regulating greenhouse gas emissions or contributing to international climate change funds.

While in Cancún, I also saw the Quaker practice of consensus-based decision making reflected in the UNFCCC’s deliberations. The UN is the only global multilateral forum that operates by consensus. As in a Quaker meeting or church, where every person’s input can be heard and respected before reaching a decision, at the UNFCCC the 194 countries must arrive at a decision that is, if not optimal, at least acceptable to all parties.

Because climate change includes complex political, economic, and sociological factors, it also involves difficult trade-offs. A consensus-based decision on any of the thorny issues considered by the UNFCCC often feels impossible, yet the consensus process is also the best way to move forward on these global decisions. This is because greenhouse gas emissions reductions must be made domestically, country by country, and therefore present a free-rider problem: every country is tempted to let others make the hard sacrifices to reduce emissions and shirk its own duty to do so. This challenge can be overcome only if every country in the world signs an agreement, and consensus is the only way to find the "golden-mean" agreement that is acceptable to all parties. Quakers have a long history of supporting the UN because it provides this kind of forum where all countries can voice their concerns and seek a shared solution to global problems like climate change.

This reality was made clear to me in Cancún. At the Copenhagen negotiations in December 2009, the last major gathering of the COP, the parties were unable to reach a binding decision at the end of the discussions. Several countries, including Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Bolivia, and others, did not agree to the Copenhagen Accord and accused the Danish presidency of the conference of facilitating exclusive, backroom negotiations. On the last evening, President Obama and several other heads of state came up with the final text behind closed doors. As a result, the Copenhagen conference created an atmosphere of intense mistrust that persisted through several of the intersession meetings in 2010, which many expected to mar the Cancún conference as well.

Fortunately, the Mexican presidency of the Cancún conference, led by Minister Patricia Espinosa, worked to ensure that the process remained open and transparent and that every party was always present at the negotiating table. At the final session, which began on a Friday and lasted well into the early morning hours on Saturday, parties were expected to decide whether or not to accept the final negotiating text. Bolivia was the only country to withhold its approval, arguing that the decisions did not do enough to avert calamitous impacts from climate change. However, much as a meeting or church clerk may decide that the group has found a "sense of the meeting" with even one or two holdouts, Minister Espinosa "gaveled through" the decisions, saying that "one country should not hold a veto over the entire process."

Preventing Climate Wars

Despite many encouraging moments, the UN climate talks were striking in their lack of awareness about the long-term impacts of climate change, and specifically the connections between climate change and violent conflict. While the Cancún talks focused on creating the architecture for a Green Climate Fund board and several technical committees, negotiators gave little thought to the ways that funding controlled by these boards and committees to help countries adapt to the effects of climate change could help prevent—or exacerbate— future violent conflict spurred by environmental changes. As FCNL’s 2010 policy brief Global Warming Heats Up Global Conflict notes:

Increased competition to secure resources and meet basic needs is likely to exacerbate societal or cross-border tensions and in some cases lead to violent conflict, threatening international and U.S. security. Already some small island nations are being forced to relocate their populations, and desertification is fueling deadly conflict.

Even the Pentagon argued in its 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review, a legislatively mandated review of U.S. Department of Defense strategy and priorities, that climate change is an important strategic consideration because it can "act as an accelerant of instability or conflict."

Climate change will lead to an increased incidence of violent conflict if the international community does not actively cooperate to prevent such "climate wars" at the same time that it works to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions and limit climate change. In Darfur, for example, deadly conflict was partly the result of desertification and water shortage, while in the Arctic, countries can be expected to jockey for a position to exploit the mineral and oil resources of a melting Arctic.

Unfortunately, though many policymakers and security experts now recognize the links between conflict and climate change, these connections have so far been notably absent in the UN climate negotiations. The Cancún conference was accompanied by hundreds of informational side events organized by NGO observer organizations, bringing together academics, scientists, development practitioners, politicians, negotiators, and others to discuss many of the issues that climate change entails. I attended several events concerning climate change and its connections to migration, development, and even U.S. national security, but was unable to find one that focused on preventing violent conflict.

This is regrettable because the UNFCCC is an ideal forum for addressing how international adaptation funding can be managed to help prevent violent conflicts brought on by climate change. Based on the agreement in Cancún, the UNFCCC will now administer the Green Climate Fund to provide mitigation and adaptation funding for developing countries. The UNFCCC could shape this funding to design projects that do not exacerbate existing tensions or conflicts within societies. The funding could also promote peaceful cooperation in managing resources, adapting to the inevitable impact of climate change already underway, and mitigating future negative impacts.

At many of the side events that I was able to attend at the negotiations I asked the panelist experts about their thoughts on the conflict-climate connection. Their answers were almost universally the same: they acknowledged that this is a growing issue commanding more and more attention, but they didn’t know how the international community and individual countries could go about preventing climate-related violent conflict.

Although I was disappointed, I can’t say I was surprised at these answers. In FCNL’s work on Capitol Hill, we confront a similar lack of attention and action on these issues. Some policymakers seem to understand that the connections exist, but they remain ill-informed or dismiss the connections as insufficiently important to merit legislative action by Congress. We still have a lot to do to help policymakers make the connections between climate change and violent conflict and to see the importance of reducing U.S. greenhouse gas emissions to prevent deadly climate wars in the future.

One way for Friends to start is to read FCNL’s policy brief Global Warming Heats Up Global Conflict at http://www.fcnl.org/ppdc/ and share it with legislators, as well as with church/meeting, environmental, and peace groups in our areas. Together, we can make our voices heard and become Quaker witnesses to one of the most important and morally compelling challenges of our era.

Stark Alexandra

Alexandra Stark, a member of Moorestown (N.J.) Meeting, is a program assistant in the Peaceful Prevention of Deadly Conflict program of Friends Committee on National Legislation.