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Drowned out

Alex Randall was at the Copenhagen climate talks in December, representing the small Pacific island state of Kiribati. In this blog, written especially for New Internationalist, he explains why size matters when it comes to country delegations.

At the end of the Copenhagen negotiations it felt like the mainstream media was playing the blame game. Finger-pointing commentaries were everywhere. Mark Lynas and Martin Kohr battled in the Guardian about whether we should blame China or Denmark for the lack a decent deal. But in trying to work out who to blame we’ve missed the point – and missed the chance to look at a raft of wider problems, which meant we ended up with the disappointing ‘deal’ that we got. 

There are of course many, many problems with the COP process. Problems that make it work well for some countries and badly for others. There is just one particular problem that I want to talk about here. One that I experienced up close when I was working at COP15. The problem is simply this: some countries send hundreds of negotiators, advisors, experts and lawyers. They spread the endless meetings and tough workload between their dedicated, well-rested and well-informed teams. Other countries don’t. They can’t afford it. They can’t afford to send hundreds of people. They can’t afford to get them half way across the world. They can’t afford the salaries, the transport and the accommodation. So the poorest countries, who contribute the least to climate change, and have the most to lose, are the countries with the smallest voice. 

If you want to get a picture of this disparity just download the delegate list from the COP15 website. You can count maybe 200 people of the US delegation. Now skim through until you find Kiribati – it’s a small island state in the Pacific Ocean. They sent a delegation of about 15. Barely enough to put one person in each stream of negotiations, and certainly not enough given that the negotiations often go on all night. I was part of the Kiribati delegation at COP15 so I saw exactly what it’s like for a small delegation trying to keep up with the endless meetings and documents. At the end of two weeks working for the Kiribati delegation it was obvious to me that it is almost impossible to properly represent a country with a delegation that small. 

So what is the result of this disparity? Richer countries that can afford to send bigger delegations are more likely to get what they want. 

I won’t pretend this is the only factor influencing the outcome of negotiations – there are of course hundreds of other issues that play out during the negotiations and push things on way or another. But certainly if you want to increase your chances of getting your way at the negotiations you would send a big, well-trained, well-resourced delegation. More often than not richer countries with big delegations get what they want. So the outcomes of the negotiations continue to reflect the interests of the biggest economies in the world. While the poorest countries; the countries with the smallest historical contribution to climate change; the countries already experiencing the devastating effects of global warming are the countries with the smallest voice. The fact that the biggest economies usually get their way in these situations isn’t anything new but what I saw at COP15 was exactly how these injustices happen. 

Kiribati is perfect example of this injustice. They are the front line of the front line when it comes to climate change. The low-lying islands are already experiencing increased flooding. Large areas are already predicted to become permanently inundated. As sea levels rise salt water is intruding into the fresh water supply. Kiribati desperately
needed a deal at Copenhagen that kept levels of warming to below 1.5 degrees. They needed this to ensure the survival of their country. Whether future negotiations will deliver this is still unclear. 

So what is the solution? Maybe the UN could fund more delegates from vulnerable countries. Maybe we could cap the number of delegates from developed countries. After my experience at COP15 suggestions like these seem like sticking plasters at a road accident. The disparity in representation was not the only injustice I witnessed at COP15 and, after the conference failed to deliver a deal that protects the most vulnerable countries, I think bigger questions need to be asked about how humanity deals with climate change.

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