When the Planet starts to boil
A history of climate change negotiations for dummies
If I was to transform the history of climate change negotiations into a story for children, how would it sound? Once upon a time there was a frog that landed by very accident in a caldron full of lukewarm water…and because the caldron was so big and the frog was so small and the water so lukewarm and all the environment seamed so natural and cozy, our frog decided to set permanent camp in the caldron. No need to say that it had no idea that the caldron was a caldron, that below there was a fireplace and that the housewife was at that very moment preparing for cooking dinner. At first the frog could just notice a pleasant change in the temperature of the water. The warmer the water became, the more relaxed and cozy our frog felt in her new home. Time passed and the temperature of the water started rising more and more and the frog started making efforts to adjust to this less pleasant change. When the water got to boiling point the frog made a last desperate attempt to jump out of the cauldron but it was just too weak, it was just too late.
This is not a story I invented and I am not the first person to link it to the issue of climate change.
Since 1992 when the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was adopted we have assisted to more than 30 years of unprecedented climate warming and still “the frog” cannot decide if the water is boiling, still pondering whether the time to act has come or not.
As a failed attempt of this pondering the world has seen the Kyoto Protocol coming into force trying to agree that the water is dangerously hot but only for a part of the frog (the developed part of the frog), for the part of the frog that was still developing, a bit of hot water was considered a necessary bad.
Seven years later, in Doha, maybe inspired by the heat of the Arabic dessert, the parties to the UNFCCC decided that the developed part of the frog needs to make an effort to jump out of the caldron caring the developing part with it. As the caldron was getting hotter and hotter the developed part of the frog decided to make a desperate gesture and jump…the only outcome of that being that now the whole frog was convinced that if it is to escape the soon boiling caldron, it needed an unified gesture.
The importance of the Paris Agreement is that for the first time in the history of climate negotiations the frog agreed that the water is almost boiling and it is high time for the two parts of the frog to make a collective effort to jump. And the frog did beautifully unite in public view, with heads of state attending to the show, with the civil society declaring it a historic breakthrough and with more than 5 000 negotiators each determined to personally influence be it with only one coma the historic agreement.
Only that…once the lights went off and the adrenalin went down, the frog had a spiritual insight…there is nowhere to go. It had aligned beautifully but the jump was yet to come…the frog (now unified) started pondering again if it “should” really do something about the situation. Consequently, the frog invited a neutral friend ( called the International Panel on Climate Change – nicknamed IPCC) to look into the matter and say once and for all if the mere unification of the frog under the flag of “should act” according to their “nationally determined contributions” was enough to get the frog out of the boiling water. The IPCC report was released in 2018 bringing crashing news for the poor frog – it is now or never as the water is getting fast to a boiling point and in fact, in no more than 10 seconds (which is what 10 years might mean at the scale of the life of the planet) the caldron might explode. The frog needs to move fast and jump.
But with the necessity of the jump a new problem, this time philosophical arrises, what is a jump and how does the frog know that it has really jumped or that the jump was high enough. And this brings us to the second thorny issue of climate change negotiations – let’s call it monitoring of progress, or it could be called a transparency framework allowing all Parties to know where they stand in taking action to prevent climate change and also to know where everybody else stands. It used to be called in the past (and still is by the geeks who are in charge of this kind of issues) monitoring, reporting and verification of greenhouse gas emissions (MRV). I am one of those geeks, I spent 7 years of my professional life immersed in something that was combining law, science and statistics, a thorny field sometimes closer to art than anything else. I was even worse than an MRV expert, I was an MRV lawyer.