A Lost Reputation, a Damaged Legacy as US refuse to protect human dignity beyond its borders

Earlier last week, I took part to a panel discussion on the topic of Human Rights and Climate Change. Besides me, Maria Tiimon Chi-Fang and Maina Talia spoke about the impacts of climate change in Kiribati and Tuvalu. Both of them highlighted similar stories, describing how raising seas and more frequent extreme events were threatening the livelihood and cultures of their community. The slide show that both had prepared involved neither fancy powerpoint tricks nor sophisticated visuals. But the simple pictures projected on the large screen behind me were sufficient to tell a powerful and touching story, the story of communities struggling to deal with the consequences of climate change in situations where adaptation is no longer an option. Trying to concentrate on my own upcoming presentation, I felt my head spinning, shaken by the deep meaning of these images. I wondered if I could still dare to walk to the podium and deliver my short introduction to advocacy efforts to strengthen the recognition of human rights implications in these talks, or if I should simply ask the audience to spend 10 minutes in silence and reflect on what the testimony of Maria and Maina should mean for our actions during the next eight days.

A few days later, Naderev Saño (the Philippines’ climate commisionner) shook all negotiators at the climate conference, reminding the audience of the devastating effect that typhoon Bopha was having on the communities of the archipelago.

“We have never had a typhoon like Bopha, which has wreaked havoc in a part of the country that has never seen a storm like this in half a century. And heartbreaking tragedies like this is not unique to the Philippines, because the whole world, especially developing countries struggling to address poverty and achieve social and human development, confront these same realities.”

After several days spent in the sterile conference halls of Doha, his intervention brought the human element back into the discussions, warning that the legacy of this conference will not be measured in dollars and tons but rather in lives lost or undignified. Since then, most of civil society and particularly the youth attending the COP have expressed their solidarity with the Philippines, echoing Naderev’s message: “Please … let 2012 be remembered as the year the world found the courage to … take responsibility for the future we want. I ask of all of us here, if not us, then who? If not now, then when? If not here, then where?”.

When the climate convention was first negotiated in the early 90s, climate policy was all about mitigation, as most still perceived climate impacts as a distant threat. But governments failed to take adequate action and the climate change become more tangible. During the past decade, the climate negotiations have thus seen a rebalancing between the objective to mitigate dangerous climate change and the need to adapt to ongoing impacts. But as illustrated by the examples outlined above, climate impacts have outpaced responses by governments and many local communities are now in situation where adaptation is no longer sufficient. Discussions have thus been ongoing since 2010 on the adoption of a framework to compensate “loss and damages”. Loss and damages has become the “moral compass” of the climate talks, touching on fundamental values such as human dignity and human rights. The conference in Doha was expected to conclude these talks with a mechanism to provide support for vulnerable communities already impacted by climate change.

The opportunity for such a mechanism to be adopted in Doha is however threatened tonight, on the final hours of the negotiations, as the EU and the US have been fearcily pushing back against the proposals put on the table. Just a few weeks after Sandy hit the East coast of the US, with related costs expected to reach 60 billions of dollars, US negotiators are mobilizing all their resources in order to prevent any adequate solution to be discussed to address the needs of other countries wrecked by similar events but lacking the resources to mitigate their human and social costs.

“We Want Our Children To Live In An America That Isn’t Threatened By The Destructive Power Of A Warming Planet’”. – President Obama acceptance speech, November 2012

Witnessing his civil servant actively obstructing the conclusion of the loss and damage discussions here in Doha, one wonders whether President Obama really meant that he would only care for the impacts of climate change on US citizens. Only a few hours are now left in Doha for a positive decision to be taken on this particular issue. As images of Maria and Maina’s communities threatened by the sea keep unwinding in my mind, I wonder if President Obama will accept that his legacy be marked with such a shameful stain. Were Obama to have a global vision of human dignity, he would have to urgently request his Special Envoy to step out of the way and allow the rest of the world to move one step forward towards a solution to loss and damages.