Live-Blogging The United Nations Climate Summit
Popular Science is inside the U.N., where 150 heads of state are talking global warming. Will they put momentum behind an international treaty in 2015?
In December 2015 world leaders are scheduled to negotiate the final touches in a new international treaty to cut greenhouse gas pollution, save forests, and take other actions to curb climate change as well as deal with the impacts that can’t be stopped. If the agreement were based solely on the best climate science, strong action would be a no-brainer. So today I’m live blogging this special one-day climate summit organized by the Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki Moon. He hopes this event will help educate current world leaders-most have come into office since the 2009 Copenhagen negotiations-and improve the chances that they’ll agree to a strong treaty next year.
Note: Refresh this page to see the latest updates. All times EDT.
6:23 p.m.: The needs and roles of women and girls in climate change action has been a major part of this panel’s discussion. The panel had a majority of women speakers, in fact. The overall messages they’ve conveyed are that as over half the world’s population, and given how many direct impacts of climate change they are already taking on (changing agricultural patterns, family health, and more), women need to be at every table where discussions about climate change are taking place and decisions are being made–including the U.N.’s climate treaty talks.
In many parts of the world this means by default that women’s health and women’s rights need to be enhanced and protected.
Although no one mentioned it here, to my ear this echoes, softly, the recent discussions swirling around the research science community about improving working conditions and career opportunities for women in the sciences. In so many ways, women’s rights will make or break human progress in the 21st century.
And that’s it for this live-blog. While today’s meetings and speeches were mostly political, the science and technologies that help us understand climate change inform climate policies, and usually floated just below the surface. Human ingenuity helped create climate change. Now that same force is trying to solve it.
6:15 p.m.: On communicating the science of global warming: A man, I think a representative of the U.N. general secretary, tells the room that Ban has told a nearby panel on resilience that from now on, the U.N. “will systematically communicate, for every natural disaster, of whether there is a climate signal there.” No more complicated or equivocating scientific statements that it “could” be related to climate change.
Farrow responds that no matter what, “people’s eyes glaze over” when news about climate change appears on their screens._ [6:37 p.m. addendum:]_ I think this tweet from one of the organizer’s of Sunday’s climate action march meets Farrow’s news media critiques.
6:12 p.m.: Evo Morales, president of Boliva, has not said anything since making an opening statement at this panel. Now he’s spoken up to say that unless people debate “where global warming comes from,” nothing will be done. It comes from luxury, he says, meaning the material wealth of industrial nations. Oke challenges him, “Are you arguing for the end of capitalism? That that will solve climate change?”
“That’s one of the solutions, yes,” he answers. Oke then tries to get the conversation back onto its main theme, of practical responses to climate change.
6:06 p.m.: “What do developed countries want us to do,” says Alina Saba, “stop breathing? Stop using fuel to cook our food?”
Saba is a researcher and organizer with the Mugal Indigenous Women’s Upliftment Institute, of the Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development.
Ora echos earlier words by other panelists when she responds that since women are over half the world’s population, they need to be at the table in all decision-making about climate change prevention and resilience.
6:04 p.m.: Oke asks Ora, what does adapation and coping look like in the Solomon Islands? It looks like women going to look at alternatives, Ora answers. When croplands become inundated with salt water and can’t grow taro anymore, they look for other crops that might survive the new conditions, for instance.
Most Pacific Islanders, says Ora, are now forced to think about where to go as the sea level rises. “If you really need to move from this island,” she recalls asking a village chief, “what will you do?” He answered her, ‘I’ll make sure my kids go to another island. But me, I’m going down with it.’
5:56 p.m.: Moderator and British journalist Femi Oke snags Farrow. Oke looked at Farrow’s website on MSNBC, she says, and found only three climate stories. He answers by blaming the structure of the web site rather than the direction of the network’s news coverage.
Then he shifts to the ever-disarming strategy of self-criticism, telling the news business of which he is a part, “You need to stop telling people why they should be hopeless, and start telling them why they should be hopeful.”
5:43 p.m.: Why haven’t people been doing more to stop climate change? Ronan Farrow says to Ora, “Mostly the media is the problem here. It’s not telling the stories they way they need to be told.” Uhm. I’m biased, but Farrow might consider broadening his media diet.
The Solomon Islands, Ora’s home, is a South Pacific island nation. In August, the nation’s Choiseul township decided to relocate because its Taro Island location is only 6.6 feet above sea level. Sea level rise is making Taro Island increasingly vulnerable to tsunamis and storm surges.
5:36 p.m.: The next and final panel, “Voices From the Climate Frontlines,” is underway. I first met and interviewed panelist Christina Ora, a Solomon Islands activist, in 2009. At that time she was a 17-year-old youth activist at the Copenhagen climate talks. She’s here today, still a climate activist, now helping to coordinate community youth groups.
5:15 p.m.: International climate events come with their own brand of intrigue. As The Washington Post’s Adam Taylor reported earlier today, with so many national leaders attending today’s climate summit in New York City, the absences of Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi are glaring:
Vladimir Putin, the president of fourth-largest emitter Russia, is also not present today.
4:47 p.m.: A representative of Guyana has the final word at this session. He says that his nation is already starting to drown because of sea level rise due to human-propelled climate change.
Science has told us what the problem is and what the solutions are, he says. What needs to happen now is that industrial nations put their money where their mouths are to help poor nations that did little or nothing to cause this crisis — the room applauds — as well as (and here I paraphrase) ceasing to make the situation worse
4:25 p.m.: John Holdren, senior science and technology advisor to President Obama, is in the audience. Hodren affirms that the U.S. is declassifying and releasing to the world high-resolution geographic imaging data collected via the space shuttle program. Today elevation data for Africa at a 30-meter resolution is being released — supplanting past publicly available data at a 90-meter resolution. The U.S. will release equally detailed data sets for other regions of the world within a year, says Holdren, in the hope that they’ll help inform understanding, responses, and preparation for climate change impacts like sea level rise and changing weather patterns.
4:16 p.m.: IPCC scientists have learned how to communicate their findings on climate disruption, its causes, and what needs doing as a result in simple terms, says Thomas Stocker. So political leaders can’t use the excuse, anymore, that they don’t have time to sit down, read, and figure it out.
4:10 p.m.: On the question of how to be sure the best available climate science can be communicated effectively to educate and motivate citizens to act, Julia Marton-LeFevre recommends turning to “the communication sciences.” Scientists have to take responsibility for communicating clearly, using simple language, dropping the complicated acronyms. Science education should include learning how to communicate clearly with non-scientists. “Natural sciences and social sciences, we don’t usually talk to each other,” she says. “Let’s learn how to communicate.” Marton-LeFevre is the executive director of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which manages the “red list” of information on threatened and endangered wildlife.
3:53 p.m.: Climate scientist Thomas Stocker of the University of Bern, Switzerland and member of the IPCC, gives an impressively concise summary of the latest science about global warming. The only way to stop it from getting worse is to cut greenhouse gas emissions, he says.
Stocker contributed to the development of “hockey stick” graph, a plot of historic and contemporary data that shows a sharp rise in mean global temperatures over the 20th century. Unlike his colleague, American scientist Michael E. Mann, apparently no one in Switzerland has accused him of misapproriating research funds as a result.
3:49 p.m.: Prime minister Aleqa Hammond, of Greenland, is the first to address how science and policy should interact to take effective action on climate change. Greenlanders live side by side with the largest glacier in the northern hemisphere, she begins. “We’re experiencing climate change now, in our bodies, our minds, and our country every day.” Weather in Greenlandic means “sila.” Consciousness is called the same, “sila.” Universe has the same name: sila. “It says a lot about our holistic understanding of our environment,” Hammond says.
Science is helping Greenlanders see what’s important and not important about climate change, Hammond says, but the science is just proving what Greenlandic hunters have been seeing firsthand for a long time. Bird and whale migrations have been changing. They’re coming later then they used to. “We knew from this that climate change was here before the term was introduced to us in English.”
“Climate change in Greenland is making it dangerous to walk on the ice where ice has been strongest beneath our feet,” says Hammond. Hunting seasons are changing. The economy is changing. “Our old cultures and traditions are also in danger. Our basic understanding of the universe is changing.” Science and our traditional knowledge must go hand in hand for us to go on, she says. “Sustainability, sustainability, sustainability is the answer.”
3:30 p.m.: The afternoon sessions at the U.N. Climate Summit are starting, including the one I’ve just sat in on: how climate science can help inform good decision-making by governments. Nerd heaven.
2:30 p.m.: “Twitter is the most important tool of international diplomacy.” #OverheardAtTheUN
**1:24 p.m.: **President Obama made political points in this speech that the U.S. will likely take into the next 14 months of international climate treaty negotiations:
• Under my administration, the U.S. is increasing energy efficiency and reducing greenhouse gas pollution (i.e., I’m doing what I can without going through Congress.).
• We’re helping a lot of other nations do the same, with technical and financial assistance. (That is, I am putting cash on the resilience and adaptation barrelhead via existing international aid and development programs, as opposed to the Green Climate Fund.)
• The U.S. might be able to work itself around to doing more if the other big emitters — particularly and especially powerful competitors and emerging economies like China — agree to do the same.
• [Subtext alert:] But no, we’re not going to mention putting a global price on carbon pollution, or agreeing to legally-binding promises on greenhouse gas cuts. That would be political suicide.
1:16 p.m.: The denoument: “If we act now, if we can look beyond the swarm of current events and some of the economic challenges and the political challenges involved,” if we put our children’s interests above all our short term interests, “the world that we leave to our children and our children’s children will be healthier, safer, more prosperous and secure.” I may be off by a few adjectives, but you get the idea.
**1:14 p.m.: **President Obama says he is instructing government agencies as of today to start factoring climate resilience into international aid and development efforts. And a new effort to expand climate data and early warning systems for vulnerable nations, to help them better plan for heavy weather and rising seas.
“We recognize our role in creating this problem” and our responsibility to combat it, says Obama. But every other nation must join in — he calls out the richest emerging economies, like India and China, which are now major greenhouse gas polluters alongside the United States.
**1:10 p.m.: **President Obama says that 120 nations are receiving aid from the U.S. to leapfrog over fossil energy to renewable energy development of their economies.
1:07 p.m.: “The climate is changing faster than our efforts to address it. The alarm bells keep ringing. Our citizens keep marching. We cannot pretend we do not hear them,” says the president. “We know what we have to do to prevent irreparable harm.”
We have the technological imagination and the scientific knowledge to act on climate change right now, says Obama.
“Today I am here personally as the leader of the world’s largest economy and its second largest emitter to say we’re doing something about it.”
1:03 p.m.: President Obama hits the stage.
12:55 p.m.: President Obama is next on the schedule, at 12:45 p.m. Naturally, he is running late.
12:45 p.m.: I have never before seen this many people smiling about anything having to do with the international palm oil industry. People are giving each other very sincere congratulations.
12:38 p.m.: A representative of Rainforest Alliance — one of a few non-profits here today lauding the palm oil pledge — stands up and says “We stand ready” to help advance the “palm oil sustainability agenda.”
12:15 p.m.: Back in the lovely wifi room. The Indonesian government and agri-giants Cargill, Golden Agri Resources (GAR), Wilmar, and Asian Agri are stating publicly at this climate summit that they’re committed to stopping deforestation, supplanting it with “sustainable palm oil operations,” and getting the same going all along the global supply chain. This “palm oil pledge” is major conservation-and-climate news.
Palm oil is Indonesia’s single biggest economic sector, helping to reduce the nation’s intense poverty. Palm oil is also such a lucrative global business that it’s expanding into other tropical nations. But palm oil has been the cause of intense rates of forest and peatland destruction, ecosystems that would otherwise be storing much more carbon than the palm plantations that replace them. These tropical forests are also important biodiversity hot spots that support incredible wildlife.
Shinta Widjaja Kamdani of the Indonesian Chamber of Commerce tells the press that this pledge is not just about signatures on a page, but is going to result in serious action.
Franky Oesman Widjaja, chair and CEO of GAR, tells the press that his firm has had a “zero-burning policy” since 2007, and since 2010 has been working to preserve forest and peatlands that store a lot of carbon. He says his firm is working with Greenpeace and Forest Trust on improving its sustainable palm oil practices.
**12:03 p.m.: **Even Rajendra Pachauri, the head of the U.N.’s top climate science body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), has to go through security to get into the building.
11:52 a.m.: “What strikes me today is the mobilization of all actors” to take action on climate change, says president Francios Hollande of France – from governments to civil society organizations to the private sector. Thank you, high school and college French classes: I’m listening in to his press conference on the public channel, which has no simultaneous translation, while sitting on the floor near a security point in the Secretariat Building. His diction is excellent.
Ban Ki Moon thanks Hollande and France for committing $1 billion to the Green Climate Fund.
11:07 a.m.: And now I’m being kicked out of the room and off this wonderful wifi because the next press conference “is for French journalists only.” Quelle domage.
10:55 a.m.: A reporter asks the panel if this joint call for a price on carbon is just “bluewashing” by participating companies that want to hide or diminish attention on the damage they’re doing to the environment. It’s the kind of question a reporter asks to try and provoke an unscripted response. No one bites hard on the bait. “We’re in an ongoing struggle” to redirect the energies and strategies of the business world, answers Kell. Lund adds, “It’s a lot more important to see that the evolution of a big polluter is the appropriate one” than trying to keep such companies out of the global carbon price coalition.
10:44 a.m.: **There’s been pressure for several years now on industrialized nation pension funds, sometimes called “institutional investors” and which collectively have over $15 trillion invested in global commerce, to reduce or eliminate their fossil fuel holdings. **
And they’ve been listening. Last week, just ahead of a big private sector climate forum held alongside today’s political summit, a group of powerful institutional investors issued a public call for a global price on carbon. Here, Frank Pegan of Catholic Super, an Australian pension fund, is underlining that announcement.
“This is the first time there is a global movement starting for a global carbon pricing,” adds George Kell, executive director of UN Global Compact.
**10:38 a.m.: **”Inaction is not an option,” says
a representative Helge Lund of Statoil, best known as a European natural gas supplier. “Without sustainable energy, there cannot be sustainable growth.” He goes on, “Business cannot succeed on a planet that fails…We need an international carbon price.”
10:32 a.m.: Next up, a press conference on the economic case for putting a global price on carbon. Lately some in the “business community” are getting more vocal that this measure — derided by opponents in the United States as a “carbon tax” — is essential to cutting their financial exposure to risks of climate change like increasing drought, storm damage, strained fresh water supplies, and such. If it cost money for businesses to pour greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, the reasoning goes, they’d start to cut down on that pollution.
10:25 a.m. I have found the press conference, taking place in a room that’s about a quarter-mile walk from the media center, through two lobbies and down an escalator. Unfortunately, it’s almost over. But the wifi here is great.
9:46 a.m.: The UN has given over this shed-like space to the international press corps for the 2014 Climate Summit. The wifi is so overloaded that it’s about to faint. The screen features feeds from three simultaneous high-level sessions where world leaders are giving speeches about taking action on climate change. These are mildly interesting, but I’m heading over to a press conference on cities and climate change.
The Glamour of Journalism
9:30 a.m.: That’s a pretty big deal. Full funding of the GCF by industrialized nations is crucial to getting a new climate treaty worked out for 2015. As is always the case with money, however, some nations are holding back because they can’t agree on how to spend and track the cash.
9:27 a.m.: The president of Korea just pledged $100 million to the Green Climate Fund, or GCF, to help developing nations undertake low-carbon economic growth.
**8:44 a.m.: **Almost through security, at long last.
8:10 a.m.: Here’s a map of the “frozen zone” around the United Nations (note: today isn’t a good day to drive anywhere near Manhattan.):
U.N. Frozen Zone
**8:06 a.m.: **I’m in line to go through security. We’re told the wait is 40-60 minutes. At least it’s nice outside.
United Nations Security Line