Typhoon Devastation Shakes Up Global Climate Talks

Paolo Galizzi in Law360, November 12, 2013

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The devastating typhoon that ripped through the Philippines this weekend is adding a new sense of urgency to the United Nations global emissions negotiations that just began in Poland, as experts say the massive storm could spur progress toward a major agreement.

A wide-ranging deal is still unlikely to emerge out of the two-week Warsaw talks, as many of the nearly 200 nations from around the world remain far apart on the terms of a global agreement and are focused on laying the groundwork for the pivotal 2015 conference in Paris. Nevertheless, the storm will be impossible to ignore as a reminder of the havoc climate change can wreak and should push delegates closer to striking a compromise, experts say.

Thousands of people are feared dead, with as many as 600,000 displaced by the massive storm that tore through the Philippines. When the head of the Philippines delegation stood up and, fighting back tears, urged the delegation to “stop this madness” and sign on to a binding treaty, he received a standing ovation.

Delegates will feel more pressure to reach an agreement because of the storm in the Philippines, according to Fordham Law School professor Paolo Galizzi.

“Whether the typhoon is linked to climate change or not, it's a very emotional opening of the conference,” Galizzi said. “It could push the agenda into unexpected areas.”

Establishing a firm scientific connection between the storm and climate change will undoubtedly be difficult. Vermont Law School professor Patrick Parenteau noted that some climate scientists had linked the typhoon to rapidly increasing heat in the Pacific Ocean, but many others have said other factors like the vulnerability of the population are largely to blame for the casualties.

Still, the images from the storm's aftermath will influence delegates during the negotiations, according to Parenteau.

“It’s hard to look at those scenes of devastation and think that we can just keep on doing what we're doing,” Parenteau said.

Reed Smith LLP counsel Jennifer A. Smokelin, who was an official delegate of the U.S. energy industry during the 2009 global climate talks in Copenhagen, said the typhoon would be a “galvanizing force” for the delegates to move on the so-called Durban platform, an agreement to address global warming set out during negotiations in 2011.

“It could be like Hurricane Sandy in the United States bringing up discussions of climate change on the federal level,” Smokelin said. “Certain catastrophic events can ramp up climate change negotiations.”

One major element of the Durban platform likely to receive more attention in the wake of the typhoon is the green climate fund, which was established to provide developing countries with more resources to create their own clean energy futures and adjust to the existing effects of climate change.

The storm should, at a minimum, emphasize the importance of increasing payments into the fund for adaptation, according to Parenteau. The green fund is supposed to include $30 billion by 2015 and $100 billion by 2020, but questions remain about what exactly it will be used for and on what basis the funds will be handed out.

The developing nations that are expected to get hit hardest by rising global temperatures are already turning up the heat on the adaptation issue. The Alliance of Small Island States, which includes 37 UN member countries, released a statement Monday calling for the rest of the world to move forward with a global deal and establish an international mechanism for covering loss and damage linked to climate change.

“The tragic aftermath of Supertyphoon Haiyan, one of the most powerful storms in history, serves as a stark reminder of the cost of inaction on climate change and should serve to motivate our work in Warsaw,” lead AOSIS negotiator Olai Ngedikes said. “Science has confirmed that unless we begin to reduce emissions immediately, the opportunity to keep global warming below the critical 1.5 degree threshold could be irrevocably lost.”

But regardless of pressure from developing nations, hard targets for emissions reductions have almost no chance of emerging out of Warsaw, Smokelin says. The talks are more likely to make “baby steps” toward a bigger deal in Paris, but there could be more of those steps than previously expected following the storm, she said.

There is also still plenty of low-hanging fruit for delegates to target as they work toward a larger deal, according to University of Minnesota law professor Hari Osofsky, who noted that energy efficiency measures can bolster the economy and help address climate change. Smaller deals between individual nations and regions could also reduce emissions while supplying momentum for a larger climate agreement.

“There is talk about solving this problem piece by piece through a series of sectoral agreements and smaller country agreements,” Osofsky said. “I do think that is possibly part of the solution.”

Technology transfer is another area that shows promise. The Durban platform calls for governments to exchange environmentally sound technologies for developing clean energy and reducing emissions, which could provide opportunities for the renewable energy industry.

The decision to bring business into negotiations during the Warsaw talks should also spur progress in the area of technology transfer, according to Smokelin.

All eyes still remain focused on the Paris conference in two years, however. Any kind of momentum that comes out of Warsaw will have to be sustained until then for a comprehensive global deal.

“This is really a stepping stone toward 2015,” Galizzi said. “There will be some agreement, some discussions to move this forward. The big changes need to made in Paris.”

In the meantime, developing nations will be doing their best to make sure the rest of the world doesn't forget about the typhoon damage. While a broader deal may be out of reach, negotiating blocs like AOSIS are still aggressively pursuing measures that would help them adjust to climate change as soon as possible.

“It has become clear that there are now impacts from climate change that can no longer be avoided,” Ngedikes said. "It is therefore essential that we establish an international mechanism on loss and damage here in Warsaw and address this crisis for once and all."