The good, the bad, and the ugly from COP23

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President & Executive Director Philip B. Duffy

Behind the scenes of the 23rd Conference of the Parties (COP23) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, negotiators mainly focused on ironing out implementation rules of the landmark Paris Agreement. These can be very important, but are also very arcane, and don’t make for the most exciting media coverage. Despite the lack of big announcements, however, there was progress and good news.

Positive developments from COP23, which concluded last week, were a heightened appreciation for the role of natural systems in climate mitigation, and a new, elevated status for indigenous groups in the negotiations. Less positive is a new alignment in global leadership, reflecting abdication by the United States of its previous exemplary role.

In the past few years there has been greatly increased recognition of the importance of natural systems (forests, soils, etc.) in mitigating climate change. This elevates the visibility and importance of WHRC’s work, of course. Unfortunately, the reason for this change is that we’ve now added so much CO2 to the atmosphere that it has become impossible to reach any reasonable climate goal without taking much of it back out. Land management is the only approach available now that can do this at the necessary scale. At this COP, WHRC scientists took part in multiple side events that showed how our work contributes to using forests and other natural systems to mitigate climate change.

In keeping with heightened recognition of the role of natural systems, indigenous peoples’ groups at COP23 were granted elevated status in the negotiations, and also a path to secure more climate change funding from the United Nations. One reason for this action was WHRC research showing that indigenous peoples have been more successful than others at preserving forests (and forest carbon) in the territories they control. This new status for indigenous peoples is therefore a win for the climate as well as for these groups.

This was the first COP after President Trump’s announcement that the United States would withdraw from the Paris Agreement. In the negotiations, the US reportedly maintained a narrow focus on the goal of increasing transparency in emissions reporting — which depending on the specifics could be a good thing. Publicly, the US delegation kept a low profile, in contrast to previous COPs where they hosted a pavilion to highlight US government work on climate change. This time, the US hosted only one side event — an embarrassing advertisement for fossil fuel interests. As someone said, this was like advertising cigarettes at a cancer conference.

Because of the reduced US federal government role, a wide range of Americans stepped forward to ensure that the United States remains engaged in climate change action. A number of states, including Massachusetts, California, and Washington, sent officials. California Governor Jerry Brown was a constant presence — reminding everyone that the Trump Administration does not speak for most Americans. His predecessor, Arnold Schwarznegger, came the second week, to speak about the health impacts of climate change. Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg paid for a pavilion—the largest at the COP, I am told (a distinction which Trump might appreciate).

The lack of US leadership — indeed the embarrassing use of the COP to promote fossil fuels — sends a clear message that other nations will have to lead. This is a huge opportunity lost, and I am afraid another unnecessary and unwise step in the direction of diminishing US status and influence.

As I often say (and it continues to get more and more true), the need for WHRC’s work and the opportunities we have to make a difference have never been greater.

Thanks as always for your interest and support.