Two polar bear walking on the sea ice

Polar bears can't walk to the U.N. climate talks to ask for help. Instead, our representative, Christopher J. Carter, attends the negotiations to speak up on their behalf.

© Craig Taylor/Polar Bears International

2/5/2019 3:47:37 PM

COP24 Climate Talks: Top Takeaways

Christopher J. Carter has represented Polar Bears International (PBI) at the U.N. climate talks since 2014. The most recent meeting, COP24, took place in December in the heart of Poland’s coal country. Having a delegate at the talks gives us a chance to speak up for polar bears, other Arctic wildlife, and northern peoples, all of whom face threats in a warming Arctic. In this Q & A with Christopher, we talk about his top takeaways from the negotiations.

PBI: What was it like to be in Poland for COP24?

CJC: The moment I arrived in Katowice I began to realize just how deep coal, both its mining and burning, runs for this nation and its people. Entering town, the taxi driver noted that 100,000 miners and their families depend on coal mining within an hour’s radius of this city. And that's true. Katowice is at the heart of Polish coal country, in a nation that still gets more than 80% of its power from coal. Local folks hold “black gold” as a time-tested fuel and a respected livelihood. In short, it is one heck of a place to hold an important climate summit. 

The days and nights at these negotiations are long, sometimes stretching till 4 a.m. or all night long. Negotiators work in shifts and pull seriously long days. With 30,000 of us in a high security U.N. facility for two weeks, on the move with hundreds of meetings, it was really intense.

Outside, the contrast with the meeting rooms was almost surreal. In the streets, home cook stoves billowed black coal plumes and coal-fired power plants towered above neighborhoods—I could literally taste global dependence on fossil fuels. In fact, I am still getting over a respiratory infection from the trip. Coal has devastating consequences to human health and to the Arctic—locally, two million Polish people suffer from chronic bronchitis and every ton of coal mined and burned here accelerates Arctic warming. Emissions like these are responsible for the decline of the sea ice that polar bears depend on for hunting their seal prey. It's really wild to be so far from the Arctic but see exactly what is responsible for its imminent danger.

PBI: What were you hoping for at the climate talks in terms of polar bear conservation?

CJC: Like many others, I was looking for a robust and strict rulebook to help nations meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. I also hoped for an agreement that would limit world warming to no more than 1.5C.

A successfully rolled out agreement among many nations, like the Paris Agreement, is critical for solving a global issue like climate change. The Montreal Protocol in 1987, which was all about ozone-depleting substances, is a testament to what happens when we agree to act and give real consequences to nations that fail to follow through. We as a planet have just experienced three of the consecutive hottest years and the lowest Arctic sea ice volume on record, so the stakes are high. We were looking for another Montreal-type outcome.

PBI: What did the climate talks achieve in terms of polar bear conservation?

CJC: We actually had four key accomplishments that impact polar bears and Arctic peoples:

  1. Preferred goal to limit warming to 1.5C degrees. While the Paris Agreement aimed to limit warming to 2C, the recent IPCC report strongly advocates limiting warming to 1.5C to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. Unfortunately, this newest report was “noted” rather than “welcomed” which does not give us folks in the policy world a good feeling. It’s much better to see mandatory language. Agreeing to 1.5C can ensure a future for polar bears, Arctic people who live alongside and steward them, and quite frankly a livable planet for us all. Arctic sea ice and glacial ice regulate the earth’s climate but when they melt from warming, sea levels rise. 600 million people on our Earth live less than 32 feet from high tide. If we stay on our current emissions path, 2 billion people will be displaced in the next 80 years, my lifetime. It is clear that the Arctic is a bellwether for what will impact us all—what happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic.
  2. The Katowice Rulebook. This basic legal tool sets the Paris Agreement into action. For the Arctic this is important because 196 nations agreed to the 1.5C limit and will now have to make the rubber hit the road. Nations will need to account for their emissions and contributions, and those who do not live up to standards will be prosecuted moving forward. Weaknesses remain, however, namely concerns about how strong the rulebook will be at fully implementing the Paris Agreement and the lack of language protecting the rights of indigenous peoples, including the 400,000 in the Arctic region.
  3. Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform. After years in the making, negotiators established this platform, endowing it with almost a million dollars. It will include representatives from each of the U.N.’s seven recognized indigenous regions (including the Arctic), plus seven national delegates. Arctic peoples maintain indigenous knowledge and now there is a path to include this in climate negotiations. This is a win for Arctic indigenous people who know so much about Nanuuq (polar bears in Inuit), to have a voice where decisions are made. It’s difficult to spot Arctic issues at these talks and rare to see Arctic people there, even though they know the problems first-hand. Few negotiators at the U.N. have set foot in the Arctic and don’t know how fast life there is changing. Further, polar bears, seals, and reindeer will never be able to make their way inside of a climate negotiation.
  4. Talanoa Dialogue. Based on a tradition from Fiji and across the Pacific, the talanoa reflects a process of inclusive, participatory, and transparent dialogue. This year, stories and testimony from a wide range of people—from fishermen to mothers and reindeer herders—were gathered and incorporated into the decision itself, a rare chance for Arctic peoples and their ecosystem to have a voice at the international level. In addition, the outcomes were synthesized for use by ministers and negotiators moving forward.

PBI: What most inspired you at the 2018 climate talks?

CJC: I am continually inspired by the human beings that show up time and time again and show us the good path—especially female negotiators and indigenous leaders. We are talking the brightest legal and policy minds in the world here. They know what is at stake and what we need to do to keep an Arctic livable and just. And I am inspired by their long-view approach and tireless commitment to their people, ecosystems, and regions. I am talking about young Inuit leaders, Saami Parliament leaders, and negotiators from Bangladesh and Small Island Developing States like Seychelles—the list goes on.

This year I was also really inspired by U.S. mayors and governors acting in the void of national climate leadership. They made announcements in Poland about what they are doing, and what plan to do, back home—basically, they are providing leadership in the U.S. that says, “We are still in.” They are committed to the Paris Agreement and to a livable Arctic and a competitive green economy. I had the honor of meeting the mayor of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Bill Peduto. As an urban planner, this mayor and city really inspire me. As a citizen, Mayor Peduto knows the collapse of American coal country first hand as his family endured the collapse of 1979 and economic outfall for decades. He takes the collapse of fossil fuels and the Paris Agreement seriously. As a leader he has helped that city reimagine itself, deeply investing in innovation, knowledge, and the green energy economy. To cut city emissions, Pittsburgh has written energy-efficient building codes and funded world-class public transport. Mayor Peduto is putting the people of Pittsburg first while taking cues on the future written in the Paris Agreement. Other mayors can learn a lot from him.

Further, a bipartisan coalition of 17 U.S. governors called the “U.S. Climate Alliance” announced in Poland that they will uphold the Paris Agreement through a new wave of initiatives to accelerate and scale up climate action. They released three clean energy and resilience “playbooks” that will serve as resources for states deploying solar energy, spurring electric grid modernization, and enhancing resilience in the face of climate impacts and natural hazards. The U.S. Climate Alliance now represents 40 percent of the U.S. population and a $9 trillion economy, greater than the third largest country in the world! Further, the U.S. Climate Alliance states are on track to meet their share of the Paris Agreement emissions target by 2025. The revolution is happening now. These leaders see our current state as the biggest economic opportunity of the 21st century—a chance to revitalize the rust belt and support the “forgotten man” and families by creating new green jobs, reducing inequity, and avoiding economic disaster.  

While coal mining employs just over 66,000 Americans, there were 786,000 renewable jobs stateside in 2018 with a 200% plus growth rate in the wind energy sector alone. Thanks to the global economy and visionary leaders, decarbonization and a green energy transition has started—and there is plenty of work to be had. This makes me inspired as change has already begun in tangible ways back home, regardless of lack of federal leadership. It was awesome to see so many American leaders in Poland with such dedication—bolstering the efforts of other nations.

Seeing this global commitment was heartening. It’s just what we need if we’re going to keep sea ice and polar bears around. When it comes to the Paris Agreement and moving forward from Poland, we’re still in, we have to be—after all, it’s the only Arctic we have.

Editor's note: All of Christopher’s carbon emissions through travel and work are first limited, then fully carbon-offset, via the U.N. Climate Neutral Now program, which supports projects that meet stringent standards of the clean development mechanism. In 2018, he offset 35 tons of carbon related to his work in climate policy and regional planning.

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