Thursday, December 16, 2010

Cancún Abridged

Last year in Copenhagen, despite high expectations for a political solution to control international levels of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGe), negotiations broke down and produced a weak general statement referred to as the Copenhagen Accord. On November 29, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) reconvened for the 16th time representatives from 193 countries to try again, this time in Cancún, Mexico. In all, over 11,000 people participated in the two week conference that was part high-level diplomatic negotiation, trade show, grass-roots appeals, and media circus. Among them were five observers representing the AAG. In the end, the Cancún Agreement formalized much of what was spelled out more broadly in the Copenhagen Accord a year earlier including national pledges for GHGe reductions from the world’s most developed economies, the creation of a Green Climate Fund to aid developing nations hit hardest by changing conditions, and provisions for the world’s rich to pay poorer countries to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD). The fate of the Kyoto Protocol remains unclear and has been deferred to next year’s meeting of the UNFCCC in Durban, South Africa.

While Cancún generally conjures images of rowdy youth and spring break, the mood in the city over the two week duration of the 16th Conference of the Parties (COP16) was subdued, hopeful, and anxious. Despite the distrust and disappointment arising out of the Copenhagen talks, the final days at Cancún did yield tangible results, with further commitments of funds from Annex I to less developed countries (known as the Green Climate Fund) and the consensus that global temperature increases need to be limited to 2 degrees Celsius. As Todd Stern, the senior U.S. climate negotiator stated, “ideas that were skeletal last year and not approved were elaborated and approved.” For the world, this means mitigating the worst impacts of change and pragmatically adapting to a world that is warming; for geographers, this means that there is a long road ahead on new research.

The Green Climate Fund will aim to provide 100 billion U.S.D. in aid by 2020 to support climate adaptation measures taken by the most vulnerable developing nations. This leaves a growing position for scholars to investigate how these funds are spent and the implications that they have on both landscape and culture. Whether the subject is REDD+ or cultural adaptation to climate change, the creation of this fund opens new doors for geographers of all types, and we should be at the forefront, the one subject field that is poised to answer all of the questions that will be asked from the creation of this fund.

The agreement reached in Cancún is surely imperfect. As a compromise document it is unlikely that any individual party or NGO will be completely happy with it. It sets an acceptable target for global average warming limits at 2 degrees Celsius while many wanted it set at 1.5. It is not a legally binding agreement with any built-in enforcement mechanism that requires individual countries to live up to the pledges of GHGe they have made. The pledges made thus far by developed countries are unlikely to cap warming at 2 degrees C. And nations most vulnerable to the effects of shifting climatic conditions are likely to find the financial provisions for adaptation made in the Green Climate Fund and the transfer of more carbon-neutral technologies from the most developed countries not nearly enough. However, after the disastrous end to the talks in Copenhagen, this agreement keeps the conversation alive and has helped restore trust that the UN negotiation process can ultimately facilitate a solution to the growing problem of climate change.

What became increasingly clear throughout the two week conference was that climate change has ceased to be an academic issue of interest solely to climatologists, atmospheric physicists, chemists or modelers. The talks themselves highlighted the fundamental political nature of the mitigation discussion and were steeped in the language of power, economics and historical fissures of distrust. The impacts of changing climatic conditions will not be homogenous across space. Rather, regional variation will underscore the critical dynamics driving water resources, health, agriculture and food security, infrastructure, socioeconomic activities, terrestrial, freshwater and marine ecosystems and coastal zones. These various impacts will necessitate a wide range of creative adaptation strategies for vulnerable populations and ecosystems facing critical thresholds of change. As geographers we have the ability, perhaps even obligation, to engage and contribute meaningfully in what is increasingly being recognized as an unprecedented issue of social relevance.

Perhaps what truly brings me [Jon] to this view is that throughout my week at COP16, I met very few geographers, which I found rather disappointing. Yes, there were economists of all sorts, biologists, ecologists, meteorologists, and political scientists, but they all approached climate change through their own lens; one which unfortunately always seemed parochial and didn’t address the full range of issues climate change creates. As geographers we should adopt the subject of climate change as our own and become involved on a multi-scalar level to help those outside of the subject understand the implications that our actions in this world has on other countries and cultures.

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