Polar Bears International

Christopher J. Carter represented PBI at the COP 22 climate summit in Morocco. The meeting confirmed that the world’s nations are determined to move forward with action on climate, with or without U.S. involvement.

© CJ Carter/Polar Bears International

1/9/2017 3:20:34 AM

Marrakech Climate Talks: What Happened and What It Means for the Arctic

By Christopher J. Carter, PBI delegate to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change 

From Arctic to Atlas

The High Atlas Mountains, towering and snowcapped, divide the sky from North and South—cordoning off the high agrarian valley from the Sahara Desert beyond to the East. Below, intricate irrigation canals and an ancient walled city stretch into view.

Amidst the tight cobbled streets of the medina, arresting scents of saffron and simmering tagines, Gnawa rhythms, and the air blast of a moped whizzing past build an urban ambience like no other. The temperature reads 73F as a minaret bellows a midday Salat (Islamic prayer).

Clearly, I am not in the Arctic anymore. But here in Marrakech, Morocco, at the COP 22 climate summit, the fate of the Arctic and so many other vulnerable regions are intertwined. Actions here signal to the world that climate change is important. A year after the historic Paris Climate Agreement, these meetings are, in theory, where first the global actions will be reviewed and ambitions increased.

World leaders, negotiators, and civil observers like myself have gathered here over the past two weeks to oversee the first meeting of the Paris Agreement. Here I want to offer what came from these talks—specifically with polar bears, sea ice, and peoples of the Circumpolar North in mind.

Marrakech: Where Paris Should Grow Legs

The Paris Climate Agreement at COP 21 last year was an unparalleled success, with nearly 200 nations agreeing to act on climate. The agreement pledged to keep global temperature rise to below 2 C, with an ambition to keep it 1.5 C. It also pledged to fund and integrate indigenous knowledge in its Adaptation section and address Loss and Damage. The agreement and decision sketched in 31 pages offered a skeleton text of how we will act together to keep the Arctic cool—to keep polar bears hunting seals and to ensure indigenous people’s livelihoods and settlements remain intact. If COP 21 in Paris answered the question Will we act? this meeting in Marrakech would show how.

Slow Start

After two weeks, dozens of side events and long plenary sessions, often stretching into the early morning hours, a Marrakech Proclamation and a Short Decision Text emerged. It was as if no one showed up to get things done and the real work was put off until spring 2017—I was simply underwhelmed. As someone who studies the rate of sea ice and glacial volume loss, the loss of livelihoods and social vulnerability in the Arctic and other coastal areas, the inaction caught me off guard after a very exciting Paris Agreement less than a year ago. Changes are happening fast and this seemed like a weak start, despite promising progress elsewhere. Here are my observations on three main working areas:

  • Mitigation: Or the lowering of emissions, this is what keeps the sea ice around. Delegates approved a formal way to review the plans from nations. However, current plans have our earth warming closer to 3 degrees, which will be amplified up to three times in the Arctic. Paris slated a goal to limit this to 1.5 degrees—that’s a major difference and is unacceptable. More ambition is needed by Arctic nations, especially Canada and Russia, who will likely miss their 2020 targets.   
  • Adaptation: Climate risk has arrived, especially in the North. Yet Arctic communities can still only access adaptation funding through their national governments (Canada, U.S., Norway etc.), as they still do not have a proper seat at the table in negotiations. An Indigenous Peoples platform to inform adaptation is in the works, but has not been finalized, and adaptation remains majorly underfunded.
  • Loss and Damage: Conditions beyond adaptation have arrived, too. This includes the loss of land, more destructive storms, and forced relocations of people. The Arctic and big ocean states like Fiji are feeling this.A global review, five-year work plan, and finance were supposed to happen here in Marrakech. This critical work was put off once again until spring meetings. Island nations and Arctic peoples have collaborated on climate justice for a long time and continue to learn from each other.The Warsaw International Mechanism action areas—including risk assessment, insurance, and displaced people—needs to happen much faster. Nations like Bangladesh are ahead of Arctic nations in developing loss and damage programs. We need to start talking about this in the Arctic.

The Real COP22 Happened Outside the Tents

As a seasoned island ambassador noted, “If there was a place for action here at Marrakech, it was not in the negotiating halls.” Instead, it took place over mounds of couscous, late night coffee, and discussions between innovative businesses. Nations and cities are talking about and implementing carbon inventories and carbon taxes; native and non-native peoples are collaborating on actions to keep fossil fuels in the ground; and 40 progressive cities are decarbonizing. Just this week, following the U.S. election, Fortune 500 companies declared that they would not move backwards on climate change. In Marrakech,100 international companies did the same. They care and their footprint has a real impact. This action, happening at all scales, is great for the Arctic.

What Happens Next

So I leave Marrakech underwhelmed but assured that at the United Nations level, regardless of the U.S. president-elect, world leaders are keen to act on climate and deliver the Paris Agreement. But, I fear their speed is already becoming outpaced. So at home we must continue to act, all the time and on every scale—at the kitchen table, with mayors, in the state legislature, with businesses, with schools, and through partners, leveraging our own skills to keep an Arctic that cools the world and provides a home for many.

Many people have observed that everything we do ends up in the Arctic. So, it is fair to end a story about climate talks in Morocco back in the North. As the climate talks close, sea ice levels at the moment are at a record low and air temperatures have reached a very warm 36° F (20° C) at the North Pole. This has dire consequences for this year’s sea ice extent. Less sea ice makes hunting more difficult for polar bears and indigenous peoples alike. Both may miss out on food that hunting on the ice provides. Less ice also means less protection to the shores of Arctic villages during winter storms, increasing erosion. The community of Shishmaref this August alone made the challenging decision to relocate their traditional village away from this erosion risk—leaving a place they had called home for more than 400 years.

The pace of change and increasing risk in the Arctic is indeed troubling. But, as I make my way back home to the U.S. and the politically conservative state of Montana, I use the election results and the current Arctic conditions as a prod to better engage, listen, and understand those who are not like me—those who may not know climate risk personally, who may not see that the Arctic’s future and our future are tied.

Climate change risk, after all, does not belong to a political party—it’s simply physics. So in a quickly changing world, I look for shared ground through a focus on family, risk, and livelihood. For when the Arctic is well, we all are well—so let’s pace and organize ourselves accordingly. 

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