Saleemul Huq: if climate talks were democratic, vulnerable countries ‘would have won already’

Matt McDonald, The University of Queensland

Saleemul Huq, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Environment and Development, is an expert on how climate change affects poorer nations.

With many “climate-vulnerable” nations calling on the Paris climate summit (COP21) to adopt a global warming limit of 1.5℃ rather than 2℃, will these concerns be acted upon? And if not, how much help will they get to cope with the consequences?

Matt McDonald: Your research has examined developing countries in the context of climate change – what is your role here at COP21?

Saleemul Huq: At COP21 and at previous COPs – this is my 21st, I’ve been to all of them – my role has been as an advisor to the group of least-developed countries. They are a bloc of 48 countries, currently chaired by Angola. I advise them on issues related to the negotiations, particularly on issues related to adaptation and loss and damage.

Matt McDonald: There’s been a significant focus on the “loss and damage” agenda in these negotiations. How would you characterise this issue and the interests of the countries you represent?

Saleemul Huq: This issue is about the evolution of the problem. We started off thinking about climate change as a greenhouse gas emissions problem and the solution was to reduce emissions. So in all the original negotiations and agreements under the UNFCCC process, including the Kyoto Protocol, we were treating climate change as that one problem and the solution was that one solution: mitigation.

We have failed to prevent global warming, and therefore we now have a second generation of impacts of climate change: inevitable and unavoidable impacts for which we now have to adapt.

So we have mitigation – we haven’t done enough of that and we still need to do more – but we also have adaptation because we failed to prevent the problem. Now we have a third-generation problem. We failed to mitigate; we failed to adapt; so we are going to have loss and damage: there will be inevitable losses and damages attributed to human-induced climate change, no question about that.

The question is, what are we going to do about it? The vulnerable countries say we need something in the Paris agreement to deal with it, which is different from adaptation. That’s what we’re fighting for. We’ve agreed some text, because we had an agreement in Warsaw – there’s something called the Warsaw International Mechanism on Loss and Damage. At the Paris agreement we want it to be permanent, because it wasn’t permanent in Warsaw. In Warsaw it was under the Cancun Adaptation Framework, we want to take it out of adaptation and put it as a separate issue. We’re still fighting that fight.

Matt McDonald: How optimistic are you that we’ll see a strong international agreement here in Paris?

Saleemul Huq: I’m absolutely certain there will be an agreement – how strong it is, we will see. I think at the moment we are actually moving towards the better end of the spectrum – we’re not at the lowest end, it’s at the more ambitious end. And I think that 1.5°C goal is a very good test of the strength of this agreement. It tests whether we’re concerned with pragmatism or idealism. This isn’t the place to be pragmatic. This is the place to have a vision, and the vision should be to save everybody on the planet.

The vision should not be to say “well, we’re sorry but we’re not going to able to save you poor guys living in the poor places; we’re going to save the rich”. That’s what a 2°C goal in Paris will be saying. It’s effectively saying to 100 million poor people living on planet Earth “we’ll save 7 billion, but we’re not going to save you”. It’s a very bad message for the leaders of the world to be sending, and they know that.

So they’re willing to give some type of uplifting, goal-oriented language – then the hard work will be delivering on it. It’s not going to be easy.

Matt McDonald: What are the other big issues for the countries you represent?

Saleemul Huq: The least-developed countries are recognised by the UNFCCC [the body that runs the UN climate negotiating process] as being particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, both because of their geography (and associated vulnerability to various kinds of climatic effects) and their poverty.

Their concern is with support for adaptation, which involves funding, and also reducing temperature rise to a level that they can actually adapt to. That boils down to a demand for a 1.5℃ long-term goal in place of the current 2℃ goal.

There are two other groups of vulnerable countries: small island developing states, which negotiate as the Association of Small Island States (AOSIS), and the Africa Group. These three groupings of countries – or negotiating blocs – are the vulnerable countries. There are overlaps between them and they make up roughly 100 countries.

They have a common position on the 1.5℃ goal, and that – in the context of the negotiations and beyond – is a new grouping, an umbrella grouping of vulnerable countries called the Climate Vulnerable Forum, which was started before the Copenhagen climate talks in 2009. On the first day of these talks, on November 30, they had a meeting demanding the 1.5℃ goal. They are not a negotiating bloc, but this is a shared single demand. We now have 126 countries supporting that goal, including many developed countries.

The main opposition comes from Saudi Arabia. So you are seeing a difference from the usual grouping – developing countries of G77 and China versus Annex 1 [developed] countries – not applicable to the 1.5-degree goal demand.

Matt McDonald: How significant is this shift in terms of the dynamics of negotiating blocs, in particular in challenging the traditional prominence of the “North-South” divide in international environmental negotiations?

Saleemul Huq: This is a very significant change because it brings in a new dynamic in the process, particularly for the vulnerable countries. There are 105 countries in these three groups, so they’re actually the majority of the UNFCCC, which has 195 countries. If this was a democracy they would have won already.

But it’s not a democracy and these countries don’t count, normally. So their ability to assert their demands against the views of both the rich countries and the powerful developing countries is very important. This is one of the issues that distinguishes their demands from what other people want.

Their ability to advocate for the 1.5℃ goal, to get civil society support for it, is crucial. We’re getting a lot of support from civil society, a lot of countries now beginning to support the goal, even Australia. This is about doing the right thing, having the right long-term goal. It’s not about how you’re going to reach it – that’s a second-order and later question. It can be done. It’s going to be very difficult to do, but it’s not impossible. And as long as it’s not impossible and it’s the right thing to do, we want it to be agreed here.

The Conversation

Matt McDonald, Associate Professor of International Relations, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Climate-related ‘loss and damage’ is a key issue, but it’s fiendishly complex

David Hodgkinson, University of Western Australia

One of the many side events here at the climate conference was a session on the loss and damage suffered by the poorest and most vulnerable communities as a result of the effects of climate change.

It was held jointly by the Climate Justice Programme (CJP) and the Heinrich Böll Foundation, who propose to establish a global “carbon levy” on all fossil fuel extraction, to be paid into an international loss and damage mechanism to help those communities facing the worst impacts of climate change.

There have also been side events on climate displacement, to discuss climate change-induced migration – including forced displacement – and human mobility.

What was not mentioned at any of these events is that both the carbon levy and the climate displacement proposals (which are not matters that would ordinarily be considered together) face huge issues of causation and attribution – matters that are crucial in addressing the climate change problem.

This is especially so for climate displacement.

At the loss and damage side event, the CJP pointed out that the single biggest cause of climate change is burning fossil fuels, and that the “carbon majors” – who include big coal, oil and gas – have extracted fossil fuels responsible for roughly two-thirds of climate change pollution.

It further argued that poor and vulnerable communities are paying for loss and damage with their lives, homes and livelihoods, while the carbon majors “make huge profits from selling the products responsible for causing climate change”.

Climate displacement

Climate displacement had already been examined at an event on December 1, which discussed the importance of social science research for understanding climate change-induced migration. It was argued that the relationship between climate change and migration was not straightforward but, rather, is multifaceted and touches on virtually all aspects of life.

An event the next day addressed human mobility as one strategy to adapt to climate change (relying largely on the new Nansen Initiative).

And at the weekend, yet another event, organized by a large number of non-government organisations from Bangladesh and other least-developed countries, argued for the creation of a new UN protocol for loss and damage, based on the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” of different nations for climate change.


An important issue associated with all of the these proposals is the extent to which climate change causes the event that gives rise to the loss and damage or the displacement. It is not possible at present for science to determine whether a particular environmental event was caused by climate change. It is possible, however, to identify certain phenomena and trends as consistent with climate change.

Another issue is the extent to which humans contribute to particular climate change events. Science can determine neither whether a particular environmental event was caused by climate change, nor the extent to which humans contribute to specific climate change events.

However, it has also been argued that science can determine the likelihood that humans have “contributed to a type of disruption”.

Whose fault?

This moves us on to the issue of attribution. As Carbon Brief reported earlier this year, attribution studies look at each individual event alone to see how climate change may have made that event stronger or more likely.

But a new paper in Nature argues that the methods used in these studies tend to underestimate the influence of climate change, and suggests a new approach to identify the “true likelihood of human influence”.

This paper says that a better approach is one “which asks why such extremes unfold the way they do”. Specifically, it suggests that it is more useful to regard the weather event (or other incident) as being largely unaffected by climate change, and question whether known changes in the climate system’s thermodynamic state affected the impact of the particular event.

It’s complex science that underpins an even more complex issue.

Rebecca Johnston contributed reporting for this blog post.

The Conversation

David Hodgkinson, Associate Professor, University of Western Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.