As my readers know, since I have been writing about it, I have been in Lima, Peru for the last two weeks as a member of the Philippine Delegation for the 20th Conference of the Parties of United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Following instruction of our head of delegation, Secretary Lucille Sering, Vice Chair of the Climate Change Commission, I became the delegation’s official spokesperson. Together with colleagues from the Ateneo School of Government, we also provided support and joined our negotiators to engage with 190 other governments for a new agreement on climate change that is supposed to be adopted by December 2015 in Paris, France. Lima was designed to serve as a bridge to Paris so that success in the “La ciudad de los reyes” (The City of the Kings) will pave the way for a good outcome in “La Ville-Lumière” (The City of Light).
The Lima Call to Climate Action, the outcome of two weeks of negotiations that went overtime for 24 hours, is not as ambitious as it should be and has been rightly criticized by the climate justice movement and many environmental organizations. I do not however share the pessimism of many climate activists. Climate change, as an issue, requires a long-term view and, to last in engaging with it, one must be a happy warrior—with a clear head and always a hopeful heart. Bitterness and anger quickly leads to burnout and I have seen many of that in two decades of fighting climate change.
Besides, the Lima outcome has enough to bring us to Paris where we can still increase ambition and find ideas to move us forward on the issues that deadlock countries.
The biggest of these issues is the application of the principle of “Common But Differentiated Responsibility” (CBDR), a principle that has been interpreted as putting up a firewall between countries who were considered developed in 1992 (the year the UNFCCC was adopted) and those who were considered developing countries at that time. The problem is that many countries that were poor and underdeveloped in 1992 have grown immensely and some have even overtaken other developed countries in most economic indicators.
The Philippines, as matter of law (it is provided in the Climate Change Act), adheres to CBDR and related principles like equity and historical responsibility. However, this is not an excuse for inaction by the Philippines or other countries. It is foolish and suicidal to contribute to your own destruction or to give other countries, developed or developing, free passes from the global cooperation needed to solve the problem.
Our emphasis in Lima has been on reframing climate justice as a human rights rather than a North-South issue. CBDR and human rights are not in conflict but personally I have believed for a long time that the latter is more important. The truth is many governments do not believe there is a link between human rights and climate change, an irony of immense proportions because climate change is the greatest threat to human rights. Because of Yolanda and Ruby, and other climate disasters we have faced, we know this to be the case and that is why the Philippine leadership on human became prominent in Lima. Prioritizing human rights became a mandate given to our negotiators by our head of delegation with the blessings of the diplomats in the delegation that found it consistent with our foreign policy. I have never been prouder of our delegation for doing this. We are pioneers in this issue but this is the future and it is the right thing to do.
Concepts like CBDR, historical responsibility and equity are good, and the Philippines supports them, but they are abstract concepts that refer only to states and not to peoples, communities, families and individuals. The climate change convention is state-centered and excludes real people, those that matter most—indigenous peoples, local communities, women, workers, farmers, youth, and the poor. These stakeholders do not have a voice in this process; at most, they are given a token two or give minutes to deliver statements government representatives do not listen to.
That is why in Lima, the Philippines pushed the envelope on having human rights text integrated into the Lima decision. Its inclusion in the Paris Agreement will open up the doors of the climate change convention to the people that really mattered on this issue. It would also be highly symbolic because it was in the Palais de Chaillot in Paris in 1948 where the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted.
I recalled this link between Paris, human rights, and climate change in a conversation with two human rights lawyers Cesar Rodriguez Garavito and Diana Rodriguez Franco of De Justicia, an international organization focused on South-South cooperation that is based in Bogota, Colombia. I shared with them my own evolution as a human rights and environmental lawyer, telling them the story of how I stumbled upon climate change as a topic when I was doing my doctoral dissertation at Yale Law School and how I ended up being in 17 Conferences of the Parties out of 20 that have so far been convened.
Cesar and Diana asked me how I managed the challenges of these marathon 20 years negotiations and whether it was worth it. I told them you have to be a person of hope to do this work. The question was not whether it was worth it—among other things, the personal costs (in Copenhagen in 2009, I did not sleep for 10 days straight, ended up with diabetes and lost my voice for six months, a nightmare for a teacher and lawyer) and the global expense of holding these meetings—but whether we have a choice.
How can we just surrender our world to climate change without a fight? How could the Colombians surrender the beautiful city of Cartagena and their coasts to sea level rise? How could we Filipinos just evacuate Manila or Cebu or Tacloban or Cagayan de Oro? I told them about my beloved Camiguin and other wonderful islands in the country and how some might disappear in the next century because of climate change. It is not an option to just let climate change ran berserk.
I told Cesar and Diane about my three sons who are in their 20s; that from the beginning, I have dedicated my work on climate change to them and their children and their children’s children. How could we give the next generations a world warmer by more than two degrees and all the consequences of that? Diana responded, that she too would like to have children, twins preferably, and she would also not want to leave them such a world.
When I left my two Colombian lawyer colleagues to plunge back into the Paris Agreement negotiations, Diana suddenly called out to me, saying: “Tony, fight for us! And for your sons and my twins!” A good way of framing the mission at hand, and the days in the year ahead, as we travel from Lima to Paris.