Hunger Strikes and Blame Games: 5 Takeaways From the Warsaw Climate Conference

Warsaw’s red-and-white National Stadium will return to its usual role as host of soccer matches and Madonna concerts after the United Nation’s marquee climate change conference draws to a close on Friday. The talks, which started on Nov. 11, intended to lay the groundwork for a plan to replace the expiring Kyoto protocol, to be ...


Warsaw’s red-and-white National Stadium will return to its usual role as host of soccer matches and Madonna concerts after the United Nation’s marquee climate change conference draws to a close on Friday. The talks, which started on Nov. 11, intended to lay the groundwork for a plan to replace the expiring Kyoto protocol, to be signed in Paris in 2015, and hash out new goals for curtailing greenhouse gas emissions after 2020. And while the conference was slated as little more than climate-negotiation housekeeping — perhaps the single most boring phrase in the English language — the talks became a rollicking display of collective dysfunction.

Against the backdrop of the disastrous cyclone in the Philippines and Japan’s sharp revision of its carbon targets, developing nations clashed with developed ones, green groups staged one of the biggest walk-outs at a climate conference to date, a Filipino delegate went on a hunger strike, and the talks’ hosts — Poland — gave a terrible PR performance. Effectively, the conference just became a rendition of the constant tug-of-war that occurs when money and the environment come into the same equation.

Welcome to the latest chapter of the stumbling, bumbling international effort to reach a climate agreement. Here are the highlights.  

Poland’s PR blunders

The climate conference was billed as an opportunity for Poland to change its image as one of Europe’s biggest polluters, and a stubborn holdout against green energy. Instead, the Polish government invited the wrath of environmentalists by organizing a coal summit at the same time as the climate talks. "Who rules Poland? Coal Industry or the People?" read the banners unfurled in Warsaw by environmental activists. Poland gets between 86 to 95 percent of its electricity, according to different accounts, from coal — and it’s still looking to build new coal-fired plants. Today, the country is the location of the largest carbon emitter in Europe – the Belchatow coal plant. Historically dependent on coal, and with a growing economy, the country has proved itself unwilling to cut back on cheap energy, however dire the environmental consequences. Coal plays such a large role in the country’s energy consumption, that despite Poland’s own massive resources, it imports the fuel from Russia. All of this made for something of an awkward contrast with a conference aimed at tackling climate change.

In another unfortunate public relations move, on Thursday, the next-to-last day of the conference, the Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk pulled the rug from under the country’s environment minister — Marcin Korolec — who also served as the conference’s president. In a government "reconstruction" Tusk ousted seven ministers, including Korolec. And though the now former environment minister kept his position leading the talks, the move surprised many of the delegates. Nothing like good timing.

‘The most corporate climate talks ever’

The conference also made some questionable decisions in its choice of corporate sponsors, which included the American auto giant General Motors, Germany’s BMW, and Grupa Lotos, Poland’s second-largest oil company, whose logos adorned the free tote bags given out to the delegates. Pascoe Sabido of the aptly named watchdog group, the Corporate Europe Observatory, told Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman that the conference was "perhaps the most corporate climate talks we have ever experienced." While other talks also saw a corporate influence, Sabido said the degree of the institutionalization of this influence was unprecedented, with the UN, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Polish government welcoming the sponsorship "with open arms."

Environmental groups dramatically marched out of the conference

Several hundred members of environmental organizations, including the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace, Oxfam, and, dramatically withdrew from the climate talks on Thursday, declaring them a failed effort. In a statement, the green groups said that the "Warsaw climate conference, which should have been an important step in the just transition to a sustainable future, is on track to deliver virtually nothing." According to the Guardian, the environmentalists were wearing t-shirts that read "Volveremos" ("We will return") when returning their registration badges. The activists were blaming the lack of progress on the fossil-fuel industry lobby, which was visibly present during the talks in Warsaw.

Developing nations stage a walk-out

Developing nations have long been advocating for a "loss-and-damage" mechanism for disaster relief, where rich countries would take the responsibility for the climate change they had caused with their industrialized economies and compensate the poor nations most vulnerable to environmental disasters. While these catastrophes touch nations big and small, rich and poor, there are places – especially small island nations where they’re more than just an occasional crisis – they’re an existential threat.

The Group 77 of developing nations, walked out of a Wednesday night meeting over such compensation, along with China. We do not see a clear commitment of developed parties to reach an agreement," said Rene Orellana, head delegate for Bolivia.

Nine days of climate talks, nine days of fasting 

As the world watched the devastation in the Philippines wrought by typhoon Haiyan in horror, Yeb Sano, the head of the Filipino delegation, became the face of the disaster relief debate. Sano made an emotional appeal to the negotiating teams of more than 190 countries. "In solidarity with my countrymen who are struggling to find food back home, I will now commence a voluntary fasting for the climate. This means I will voluntarily refrain from eating food during this [conference], until a meaningful outcome is in sight." A "meaningful outcome" for Sano would be, as he told German broadcaster Deutsche Welle, would be a financial commitment on the part of the rich nations for "climate change adaptation" — support for building up safeguards against environmental disasters in developing countries. Needless to say, Sano fasted for the entire duration of the conference… 

A piece of good news

The talks did produce some positive results. Britain, the United States, and Norway launched a new $280 million forest initiative to protect the world’s forests. But saving s
ome trees, even if it is a lot of them, will not prevent the conference from being remembered as an initiative overwhelmed with blame games, financial squabbles, and no big-picture outcome. 

 Twitter: @hannakozlowska

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