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The U.S. Has Almost No Official Presence at COP25 But Is Still “Obstructing Any Progress”

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This week, Democracy Now! is broadcasting from inside the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Madrid, Spain, where representatives from almost 200 countries have gathered to negotiate solutions to the climate crisis. Known as COP25 for “conference of parties,” the summit offers a rare opportunity for all countries, especially those on the frontlines of the climate crisis, to have an equal say in negotiations. It comes four years after the 2015 Paris Agreement to limit global temperature rise to “well below 2 degrees Celsius,” or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. But as the summit heads into its final days, representatives from the Global South say that the United States and other rich countries are obstructing the talks and trying to avoid their obligation to assist poorer countries already facing the worst effects of the climate crisis. We speak with Harjeet Singh, climate change specialist at ActionAid, and Asad Rehman, executive director of War on Want. He has worked on climate change issues for over a decade. “The U.S. is in all streams of discussions that are happening, be it finance, be it loss and damage,” he says. “They’re everywhere. And everywhere they are obstructing and not allowing any progress to happen.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Yes, we’re broadcasting from inside the U.N. Climate Change Conference here in Madrid, Spain. That’s the U.N. climate summit, where representatives from almost 200 countries have gathered to negotiate solutions to the climate crisis. The climate summit, known as COP25 for “conference of parties” over the last 25 years, offers a rare opportunity for all countries to have an equal say in negotiations. The Madrid summit comes four years after the 2015 Paris Agreement to limit global temperature rise to well below 2 degrees Celsius — that’s 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. But as the summit heads into its final days, representatives from the Global South say the United States and other rich countries are obstructing the talks and trying to avoid their obligation to assist poorer countries already facing the worst effects of the climate crisis.

We’ll be joined in a minute by Harjeet Singh, climate change specialist at ActionAid from New Delhi, India, but first we want to turn to a clip from his speech here at the COP, COP25.

HARJEET SINGH: This process was designed to deliver global justice. This is a place where Tuvalu is as powerful as European Union or United States. But the constant bullying of these big countries are making this process worse than useless. Their bullying hasn’t stopped. They’re not letting us make any progress in this space. There is no substitute for action. And what rich countries are doing, they are creating an illusion of action by just talking. When we demand action, they offer reports. When we demand money, they offer workshops. That is not going to help people who are suffering right now.

AMY GOODMAN: Harjeet Singh joins us now, along with Asad Rehman, executive director of War on Want. He has worked on climate change issues for over a decade.

We welcome you both back to Democracy Now! It seems every U.N. climate summit we get to speak to each of you. Harjeet, you were speaking here at the climate summit on Monday. But I think for people to understand around the world what is taking place, especially as in the United States people understand that President Trump is pulling the U.S. out of the Paris climate accord, that they may think they have nothing to do with these negotiations. But, in fact, isn’t it true that they are central to these negotiations?

HARJEET SINGH: Absolutely. So, at this very moment, what negotiators are discussing is how to deal with climate emergency. And what we call climate emergency on the outside is basically defined as loss and damage, as a third pillar of climate action. And this is a very crucial moment where they are putting concrete proposals on the table to help people who are suffering climate crisis. As we sit here, 45 million people in Africa are facing the wrath of climate change. And that is the reality. Women and children are far more vulnerable and are facing food destabilization situation at this very moment. And the drought that they are facing is worse than 35 years.

Now, this system, United Nations system on climate change, is broken, has not been able to help these people. And this particular COP is about creating that system so that money starts flowing in. And United States, which is not yet out of Paris Agreement, so in a way is serving the notice period, is obstructing any progress that we could have made here in fixing that broken system. It’s not allowing any process that can take us closer to mobilizing money to help people who are facing climate emergency.

AMY GOODMAN: According to the climate news source Heated, the United States is circulating a “loss and damages” proposal here at COP that would make it even more difficult for poorer countries to receive financial support to recover from droughts, floods and other climate emergencies. What exactly is the U.S. proposing?

HARJEET SINGH: The proposal that U.S. is right now only sharing with heads of delegation and not putting it formally is a way to arm-twist developing countries, that if you want any decision on loss and damage process which can help people, you have to agree that we will continue to have a seat at the table, even when we are out of Paris Agreement. And even more worse is that you have to make sure that the liability waiver is extended to United States and its polluting industries. This is worst I have seen in the last 10 years of me attending negotiations. It can’t get worse than that. It’s arm-twisting and bullying at the highest level, where United States, which is not meeting its emission targets, is not giving any money to Green Climate Fund and not now even letting a system to be created that can help people who face climate emergency now. I mean, look at the audacity of United States, the way they are behaving in these negotiations.

AMY GOODMAN: Earlier this year, Mozambique was struck by two cyclones, Idai and Kenneth. Over a thousand people were killed, millions displaced. This was the first time in recorded history the country was hit by two powerful tropical cyclones in the same season. Cyclone Kenneth was the strongest storm ever to make landfall in Mozambique. In the wake of Idai, the International Monetary Fund loaned Mozambique $118 million for reconstruction. Sarah-Jayne Clifton, director of Jubilee Debt Campaign, blasted the international community for forcing Mozambique to borrow money to cope with a disaster brought on by climate change. She told Climate Home News, quote, “What’s happening to Mozambique is going to happen to other places more frequently. Unless there is a more systematic approach for tackling debt problems of poor countries, there is going to be a climate debt trap spiralling out of control.” A climate debt trap. Harjeet, explain.

HARJEET SINGH: Absolutely. Let’s look at what happens when you are hit by a climate crisis. One incident can wipe out development gains over the last decades. They don’t have money to invest into development because all their money gets diverted in providing relief. So they will always — and then they are forced to take a loan from the same system that is responsible for the climate crisis. So they will always remain in debt. Poor people will end up repaying that debt that their governments are forced to take, because there is no system that exists that recognizes that climate crisis is making it worse for these people who are not even responsible for this emergency situation. And the money that should have gone to education, to health, to better their infrastructure is now going to provide food, is now going to provide relief material and reconstruct their homes over and over again. So, these poor countries will never be able to come out of that debt trap that they are put in.

AMY GOODMAN: But what does this have to do with the United States? Explain. I mean, in the past, the United States was running all sorts of side panels here. Now there is almost no obvious presence in terms of that to the outside public. But explain what it is they’re doing behind the scenes. And then, next year — well, I think it’s a day after Election Day — the U.S. is formally out. We’ll see who will be the president then, but they won’t be president yet, which means next year in Glasgow, COP26, will the U.S. not be present at all? And would you say that’s better than what they’re doing right now?

HARJEET SINGH: Absolutely. Right now U.S. is in all streams of discussions that are happening, be it finance, be it loss and damage, be it adaptation. They’re everywhere. And everywhere they are obstructing and not allowing any progress to happen, and particularly on finance. Now, when we talk about this system that should provide money to climate survivors, they don’t want that system to be created. And this demand is not a new demand. Vanuatu, on behalf of small island states, made the demand for the first time in 1991. It took us 22 years to set up a mechanism, called Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage, in Warsaw in 2013, which had a very clear function: to mobilize finance and help these countries. Last six years, constant bullying and blocking by United States, joined by Australia and even European Union, did not allow even a group to be created that can discuss what the needs are, what the gap is, how money can be mobilized. And that bullying continues at this very moment.

So this year is important. That body, Warsaw International Mechanism, is being reviewed. There is a critical opportunity to relook at whether it is fit for purpose. The disasters that we are facing is because of 1-degree Celsius temperature rise. And we are going towards 3-degree, which does not mean three times the impacts. The impacts are going to be much more. Is this body fit for purpose? Is it able to help people, for people who are suffering climate emergency right now in Mozambique and other parts of Africa? No, it’s not. So, how do we relook at this body? How do we bring in finance which is much more needed for these communities? But U.S. is busy protecting the interest of its own administration and polluting industries, so that they can never be held liable for the crisis they have caused. And U.S. is the biggest historical emitter, which means the largest country responsible for this crisis.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Harjeet, Article 6, explain what this is. I think so often the jargon here prevents people from having access or understanding the very real consequences of climate catastrophe in the world.

HARJEET SINGH: So, to put it simply, Article 6 is about how to get private sector involved and how markets are going to play in reducing emissions. This is the only piece that is hanging from the Paris rulebook that was finalized last year. So the interest of developed countries is, mobilize money from private sector in a manner where they don’t have to invest money. But from the developing country side, it’s really important to see much more public financing coming in, and the rules that are set for private companies are robust enough so that there is no leakage or loopholes. And there is a danger of these emission reduction targets being double counted, if we don’t put the right rules in place.

And there is also a bigger challenge of human rights. You know, today is a Human Rights Day, and we see how these companies have been continuously violating human rights. So, we really have to make sure that people’s human rights are not violated by these private companies. For them, the sole motive remains making profit. And we have seen how these corporations have ruined the planet, that they always have profit over planet. So, it’s really important to make sure that the so-called carbon markets or carbon trading is fair.

AMY GOODMAN: Asad Rehman, say more about these carbon markets.

ASAD REHMAN: So, as you said, often we talk about all of these terms, and there’s a lot of jargon. So let’s break it down very, very simply. Right? We know what the climate scientists have told us. We now see it with our eyes about what’s happening around the world. That’s all happening at 1 degree. Climate scientists have told us we can’t breach the 1.5-degree guardrail, and they say that there’s a certain amount of carbon that’s left that we’re allowed to pollute. Actually, if you look at the climate science report, it says, really, there’s about five years of budget left — right? — if you want prevent that breach — 10 years, if we want to be generous.

And what’s happening here now is rich developed countries, not just the United States, but Australia, Canada, backed by the European Union, not only don’t want to cut their own emissions, not only don’t want to provide finance that they promised, not only don’t want to help the most impacted people, but now want a get-out-of-jail card. And this is what Article 6, the carbon markets are, because what it basically says is, “I won’t have to cut my emissions, but I can pay somebody else, and you cut your emissions, and I will count it as if I cut my emissions,” as if there is a never-ending magic box of carbon pollution that we’re allowed to do. It is not possible. If a country like, for example, the United Kingdom or the United States, their fair share of effort would be at something like minus-200 by 2030, there is simply no carbon that you can use for an offset. And that’s taking away the issue around the environmental integrity, because 10 years ago we had an argument, in these very negotiations, about carbon markets, and developing countries and civil society absolutely rejected them. They said they do not deliver emissions reductions. They’ll lead to huge human rights violations. They allow profit for private companies and nothing to ordinary people.

But what’s most pernicious here is that as the United States and other developed countries block any progress on the finance conversation, on the help on loss and damage, what they’re saying to developing countries is, “If you agree to the carbon markets, maybe in there we will give you some share of the profit.” And so, what developing countries are left with is that is the only thing that’s left on the table. They know it won’t deliver emissions reductions. They know it will be devastating the planet. But for much-needed finance, that’s the carrot that’s being dangled. It is an absolutely outrageous decision. And ministers, as they are meeting here, will hold developing countries to — hostage, because they will say, “We will only allow conversations about much-needed loss and damage if you allow us to have the carbon markets decision go through.”

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break, then come back to our discussion. Asad Rehman is executive director of War on Want, usually in London. Harjeet Singh, global lead on climate change at ActionAid, usually in New Delhi, India. When we come back, Asad Rehman will also talk about the explosive Washington Post series on the history of the U.S. war in Afghanistan, and we’ll talk more about what’s happening here and what’s happening in Britain. The elections come up on Thursday there, and, well, we’ll find out what’s happening and also the major players there, the candidates’ position on the climate crisis. Stay with us.

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