For the past decade I have travelled to meeting after meeting of the UN climate change talks as a national negotiator for The Gambia, as chair of the Least Developed Countries group, and now as Gambia’s Special Climate Envoy. This journey has taught me that diplomacy is the key that can unlock the treasure chest of ambition we need to tackle climate change.
The talks, now in their 20th year, are meant to lead to a new international climate treaty for all nations to adopt in 2015. But they are going nowhere fast. Negotiators are entrenched. These civil servants work to defend national interests at all costs, and so progress towards an effective agreement remains woefully slow. What’s lacking is political leadership.
In November 2013, it was Warsaw’s turn to host the talks. It was a grim meeting. The atmosphere of suspicion was so severe that I thought we would leave without conclusions. While some nations backtracked on their commitments to reduce emissions or provide poorer countries with finance, other nations’ efforts to reduce emissions went unacknowledged. Clearly so fractured an environment does not catalyze compromise – the necessary foundation of any UN agreement.
In a speech I gave in Warsaw’s national football stadium, I explained that the talks can only succeed if there is trust between developed and developing countries. Trust – plain and simple. Sadly, any news headlines about the Warsaw talks that mentioned trust preceded the word with “lack of”, “mis” and “dis”. Despite the trials of Warsaw, I continue to believe that trust can end the stalemate. Building it however requires engagement on a political level – and that’s where climate diplomacy comes in.
While negotiations are an attempt to reconcile conflicting positions into an agreeable outcome, diplomacy is the art of moving the political boundaries that define what outcomes are possible. Climate diplomacy then is the art of influencing what is politically possible.
If my years as a negotiator at the UN climate change talks have taught me anything, it is the power of political will. President Obama proved this last year in enacting through executive order his Climate Action Plan, which will reduce emissions in the country that has historically put more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than any other.
Political will is also the key to ambition on the international stage. Without it there is little hope of global agreement on a climate treaty that all nations can take home and ratify. But to increase political will we must first build trust.
Over recent years, I have watched the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) gain the ability to build trust in the international climate arena. The LDC Group brings to the UN two powerful catalysts for trust, which as Gambia’s Special Climate Envoy I hope to take to the diplomatic stage:
First, proactive domestic political conditions that support ambitious climate action. The Gambia has mainstreamed climate change into our 5-year development strategy and identified actions to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. Overall, 12 LDCs have drafted mitigation policies, even though their emissions are insignificant compared to those of other nations.
All 48 LDCs have developed programs to address their urgent adaptation needs. Nine LDCs are at the forefront of enacting low-carbon resilient development strategies. By walking the walk of ambitious climate action, the LDCs can openly dialogue with other nations in a spirit of leadership. Leading by example is a powerful element of trust building.
Second, a demonstrated willingness to compromise and engage at the political level. The LDCs see climate change as an issue of the highest political importance. At the UN, the LDC Group can translate this into a style of negotiation that no longer merely defends its own positions, but one that actively seeks common ground among the key players of climate talks. The Group is also an enthusiastic force in generating solutions and outcomes that are commensurate with the scale of the climate problem.
My country is the first, and so far the only member of the 48 Least Developed Countries (LDCs) to appoint a full-time climate change envoy. As Gambia’s Special Climate Envoy I hope to use these catalysts for cooperation to build both trust and understanding. I see climate diplomacy as an opportunity to continue dialogue with partners and civil society in developed and developing countries both during and outside the UN climate negotiations.
2014 will present several opportunities to engage in climate diplomacy. Events such as the UN Secretary General’s Climate Summit in September will pave the way toward the all-important meeting in Paris in 2015, when nations aim to establish an effective climate agreement.
Having spent years at the climate change negotiations, it is time to take my message to a higher political sphere. Over the coming years my aim is to try to build trust between nations by showing other diplomats and political leaders what forward-looking countries in the LDC Group are already doing to tackle climate change. I want to promote better understanding, encourage compromises and build convergence around various positions. Because it is clear that diplomacy is what’s needed.
(Pa Ousman Jarju is a Special Climate Envoy for The Gambia and former chair of the Least Developed Countries group at the UN climate change negotiations.)