Poor and vulnerable countries were bullied at UN climate talks

Negotiating tactics by the US and Saudi Arabia forced developing states to give in on their demands for stronger climate action, writes Saleemul Huq of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development.

cop24 bully
Huq discusses the alleged bullying tactics of the United States and Saudi Arabia on poorer nations during COP24. Image: PolandMFA, CC BY-SA 2.0 via IFPRI Flickr

I have just returned home after spending two weeks in Katowice, Poland, attending the UN climate talks, known as COP24 - my 24th such conference. The objective of COP24 was to agree on a “rule book” to put into practice the 2015 Paris Agreement, and that was indeed achieved.

However, it needed 24 hours added on at the end to get it done, despite an extra day already scheduled at the beginning. And the process was not pretty.

Having been a close adviser to the Least Developed Countries Group at the negotiations for many years, I have observed at close quarters how poor and vulnerable countries are bullied into accepting text that is nowhere near adequate for them.

The two biggest bullies are the United States and Saudi Arabia, although their tactics are quite different. 

In Poland, when it came to the larger and most important task of addressing the urgency of climate action, as hammered home in October by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Special Report on 1.5 Degrees, those two countries were able to deny the science merely by “noting” rather than “welcoming” the report.

This seems like semantics, but it does represent a major challenge to the science of why the world needs to limit global warming to 1.5C. The pushback was led by the government of US President Donald Trump allied with Saudi Arabia, Russia and Kuwait.

These nations also challenged the very strong demands from the small island developing states and least developed countries for heightened ambition to reduce emissions by all countries, and forced them to compromise on that to reach an agreement in Katowice. 

I have observed at close quarters how poor and vulnerable countries are bullied into accepting text that is nowhere near adequate for them.

Threats and delays

The United States does its bullying by arranging pre-COP bilateral meetings with poor countries behind closed doors where its shares its red lines, and makes implicit and sometimes explicit threats of adverse consequences if those countries challenge the US position. 

It is extremely difficult for a poor country to defy such threats. The only time the most vulnerable developing nations have managed to do so - for example in Paris, to get 1.5C mentioned as an aspirational goal - has been when they have all acted together collectively.

The bullying tactic from Saudi Arabia is somewhat different and more procedural. It was also clearly on display at Katowice. It is to drag out the negotiations on any topic, no matter how trivial or important. The objective is to simply delay the negotiations beyond the allocated time (they have on one occasion held up the acceptance of a meeting agenda for several days!).

Most of the delegates from poorer developing countries have to go home after the scheduled conference time, and cannot stay on for the dragged-out negotiations to end. The result is often a very poor compromise text that they are unable to block. This is what happened in Katowice. 

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is a truly global treaty trying to tackle a global emergency, and in Paris, real consensus was achieved. But in Katowice, the US government joined with Saudi Arabia, Russia and Kuwait in an attempt to take us backwards.

These countries are clearly the client states of the fossil fuel industry - and nowadays they are quite open about it. This has led to other countries pushing their own interests - with Brazil, for instance, wanting credits for carbon sequestration to be counted towards its own emissions cuts too, and Turkey demanding access to climate funds - at the expense of globally agreed goals. 

Finally, I must pay tribute to Bernarditas de Castro Muller of the Philippines who passed away while we were in Katowice. She was an outstanding champion of the cause of developing countries for many years - and as such was both disliked and opposed by the United States and others.

 In fact, the Philippines was persuaded (or bullied) at one point to drop her from their delegation at the climate talks (although she managed to turn up in another delegation!). She will be sorely missed by all those determined to take action to tackle the climate emergency we are now facing.

Saleemul Huq is director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) in Bangladesh.

This story was published with permission from Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women’s rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate.

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