The annual United Nations climate conference, known as the 19th Conference of the Parties or COP 19, is underway in Warsaw with considerably less fanfare than years past. Expectations for this one are even lower than usual, after the disappointments and plodding progress of the last few conferences.
World leaders are backing away from the 2015 target for a global climate treaty to succeed the Kyoto Protocol, and the news for people concerned about climate change has not been encouraging.
It’s a situation former Irish president Mary Robinson finds profoundly worrying. She now runs the Mary Robinson Foundation - Climate Justice, and she has a blunt and rather inconvenient message for global leaders and fossil fuel-producing countries like Canada: If you’re serious about preventing the worst of climate change, you have to leave that bitumen, oil and gas in the ground.
Last year marked another record year for global greenhouse gas emissions. And a recent report from the UK found fossil fuel subsidies around the world added up to about $500 billion in 2011 - on the order of five times the amount of subsidies doled out to renewable energy.
The prospect of keeping the global rise in temperature below two degrees Celsius looks highly unlikely if current trends persist. And Canada, for its part, is not on track to meet its own commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Robinson's message about reducing oil and gas production is one that would seem to be a tough sell in a country whose economic strategy is largely built around fossil fuel exports.
“We need two messages,” Robinson told The Sunday Edition’s Michael Enright. “Moving to a low-carbon economy would be very good for Canadians’ futures, and for everyone’s future. And as well as that, we don’t have a choice. We’re running out of time.
“How can Canadians not see that their grandchildren will share the world with nine billion other people (by 2050)? And I have no certainty at all that it will be a livable world."
Robinson adds that she fears it will be, "a world of catastrophes over and over again. The 200 million people who may be climate-displaced - where are they going to go? There will be no country that will be immune to this. If [the planet] becomes too dangerous, it will be too dangerous for Canadians, for the children and grandchildren of those alive today.”
Robinson served as the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights from 1997 to 2002, and she approaches climate change as a human rights and justice issue.
She argues that in the developing world, climate change impinges on the most fundamental human rights to food, water and life itself.
“Canada is one of the countries that has benefited from fossil fuel growth and has a responsibility to give leadership. And the whole of Africa is responsible for about the same level of emissions, but African countries are suffering hugely in their food security and long periods of drought and flooding. There is an injustice in how climate is impacting them.
“Canada has been a country proud of its development record. It gives a lot of development aid. Well, all that development aid will be wiped out by terrible climate impacts.”
Robinson plans to be a vocal presence in Warsaw. She has no great hopes for a breakthrough on a global climate pact by the time the conference closes next Friday, but she remains optimistic that the global community will respond to the challenge before it’s too late.
“We’re not, I think, a stupid race. I know that political timescales can be very short. But I believe that these next two years - 2014, we have to change course, and 2015, when we need sustainable development goals and a robust, fair climate agreement - we can still do it.
“We need a forward-looking leadership, and that won’t come from Canadian politicians unless it comes from the Canadian people."
(By Chris Wodskou)