Doha, the capital of Qatar, is a glamorous construction – built entirely over the last 50 years – with an extravagant skyline where desert dunes meet the Persian Gulf. Attending the world’s biggest climate meeting there, the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), was a surreal experience. The glamor of the convention center, the deference with which our hosts treated the 9,000 COP participants, and the adrenaline needed to keep up with the chaotic schedule distracted me from the reality of the situation: we were convened to negotiate an existential threat.
With support from the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy (YCELP), I had the good fortune of attending the convention and I did it wearing two hats. The objectives of each hat were even somewhat contradictory in nature, which, in the end, reflected my conflicting sentiments toward the multilateral climate negotiations and particularly the role of small island states.
I am enrolled in an environmental protection clinic at Yale Law School, and I work with Islands First, a New York-based non-profit organization with a small staff and a mammoth objective: to build the capacity of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), one of the groups most vulnerable to climate change. A conundrum of the negotiation process is that the most vulnerable countries generally have the least capacity to influence the negotiations. Small island countries, for example, may arrive with a delegation of six while the United States arrives with a delegation of 75. The diplomatic schedule is as demanding as it is confounding with plenaries, informals, informal informals, and drafting groups occurring simultaneously in multiple tracks, small delegations struggle to leverage their voice. Islands First helps to remediate this discrepancy by coordinating extra hands and interns such as myself to cover AOSIS priority meetings and provide research as needed. By strengthening representation, Islands First strives to bring about meaningful environmental policy reform.
In addition to my role with Islands First, I was at COP to organize an event that explored alternative routes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, culminating a semester of research by students in the Yale Law School course, “Climate Change and the International Court of Justice”. The Ambassadors for Responsibility on Climate Change, or ARC, in 2011 began an initiative to request an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice (ICJ). The initiative sought a judicial opinion to define a state’s responsibility to reduce harmful greenhouse gas emissions based on established international legal concepts, including the precautionary principle and the prevention of transboundary harm (for an explanation of these legal concepts, please see Christophe Schwarte’s presentation and the ICJ summary brochure).
The event featured presentations on this subject from four diverse panelists (bios provided below). ARC member Ambassador Lima of Cape Verde brought a humanitarian vision that emphasized, “We are all neighbors with joined doors” as a reminder to value solidarity. The Ambassador referenced the extreme vulnerability of small islands and least developed countries as constituting a right to ask the ICJ for an advisory opinion on state responsibility to reduce emissions.
Attorney Christophe Schwarte, executive director of the Legal Response Initiative (LRI), presented an expert’s technical evaluation of the initiative. His critical appraisal recognized that an ICJ advisory opinion is not the “silver bullet” to reducing emissions. However, the presentation’s message was that the initiative passes the legal litmus test for an audience before the ICJ. Schwarte concluded that the action would have important benefits, such as increasing public awareness and responsibility, activating political pressure, and establishing “building blocks” for principles of international environmental law, particularly in relation to the atmosphere.
For Professor Michael Dorsey, the ICJ initiative embodies proactive action to reinvigorate the “low-intensity, politically possible, morally bankrupt conversations” of climate negotiations. This revision of the negotiation process could be achieved through an ICJ opinion that, if favorable, could create a paradigm shift towards a new international norm against greenhouse gases.
Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies’ student Dustin Schinn explained why an advisory opinion would be in the interest of all nations, including the biggest polluters and particularly the United States. An advisory opinion, Dustin explained, would reinforce the rule of law in responding to the international threat of climate change, and in the past the U.S. has been a proponent of such interventions. Furthermore, the economic costs of inactions in addition to the threat of climate change to international security and by extension U.S. national interest call for timely and effective action.
The four diverse perspectives – humanitarian, activist, student, and legal expert – resulted in a thought-provoking dialogue, evidenced in the post-presentation enthusiasm where the audience went to meet and greet the panelists. The event was a great success, and an encouraging symbol of the growing interest in the initiative, for which YCELP and Yale Law School are providing critical momentum.
Over the last twenty years, COP accomplishments in qualitative terms are at best modest compared to the urgency and scale of action required to prevent warming of a 3- to 5-degree magnitude. The plight of small islands continues to be largely overlooked, despite the efforts of groups like Islands First. I ponder that perhaps by attending the COP, these vulnerable island states are not only distracting from other efforts, but they are supporting a process in which a worthwhile outcome is politically infeasible. We might, therefore, ask: would islands be better served by not participating in the COP at all and focusing attention elsewhere? And within the negotiations, would their abstention be louder than their input?
Ambassador Stuart Beck of Palau, a small island in the Pacific, is an informed objector to the process. I can’t help but walk away from the 18th COP admiring the Ambassador’s decision, given my own growing feeling that the negotiation outcomes are pre-ordained by the specific instructions assigned to the negotiators from their country leaders back home. If this is truly the case, then through participation alone small islands are validating a broken process. Their validation of the negotiations is important because their sheer numbers help make the COP a democratic and representative process – what deficits there may be in size and resources, small islands make up for in numbers, as AOSIS represents 20 percent of total UN membership. Furthermore, small islands command a moral authority in the negotiations, which stems from extreme vulnerability to the issue at hand. This moral high ground is leveraged throughout the negotiation process through passionate interventions – for example, in Doha, the Philippines appealed to negotiators after their country was struck by a devastating typhoon during the COP.
By abstaining from the negotiations, small islands would send a very clear signal to the international community, that the negotiations have failed to reduce emissions in a timely fashion to prevent severe, sustained, and detrimental impacts to small island nations. Scientific research supports this statement, as the fourth report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) identified a global peaking year of 2015 in order to mitigate the worst of the effects for island states. Proactive and creative alternatives, such as the ICJ advisory opinion, will become increasingly viable as the COP negotiations fail to deliver a meaningful reduction in emissions year after year. Given their vulnerable position, it is likely that small island states, and their sympathizers and supporters, will have to pioneer a pathway forward.
Biographical information for the moderator and four speakers on the ICJ panel
Moderator: John Foran
Dr. John Foran is Professor of Sociology and Environmental Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and co-Director of the International Institute of Climate Action and Theory, or iicat.at.
Ambassador Antonio Lima
Ambassador Antonio Pedro Monteiro Lima is the Permanent Representative of Cape Verde to the United Nations. Prior to starting his current appointment in 2007, Ambassador Lima was the Political and Diplomatic Adviser to the President, a post he held since August 2001, while serving concurrently as the Head of State’s Permanent Representative to the International Organization of La Francophonie and Chairman of the National Francophonie Committee. From January 1999 to June 2001, he was stationed in Lome, Togo, as Director of the Communications, Compensation, and Development Fund of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). He was the Fund’s Secretary-General from June 1992 to December 1998. He was Secretary of State for External Affairs and Emigration from 1990 to 1991, and served as Director-General for Political, Economic and Cultural Affairs in the Ministry of External Affairs between 1988 and 1990. From 1985 to 1987 he was the Diplomatic Adviser to the Presidency.
Attorney Christophe Schwarte is the Executive Director of the Legal Response Initiative (LRI) - a network of lawyers that provides free legal advice to developing countries and observer organisations in connection with the climate negotiations. Before joining the Legal Response Initiative, Christophe worked as a senior lawyer at the Foundation for International Environmental Law and Development (FIELD) and served with the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea for over six years. Christophe is a qualified lawyer with over 12 years of practical experience in different arenas of international environmental law. He holds an LLM from the School of Oriental and African Studies and is a member of the International Law Association's Committee on the Legal Principles related to Climate Change.
Dr. Michael K. Dorsey is Visiting Fellow and Professor of Environmental Studies in Wesleyan University’s College of the Environment and serves as a Director on the Sierra Club’s National Board. From 2010 to 2012, Michael was the Director of Dartmouth College’s Climate Justice Research Project. For more than two decades Michael Dorsey has provided strategic guidance and advice to governments, foundations, firms, and many others on the interplay of multilateral environmental, climate, and biodiversity policy, including for the Clinton administration. He was a member of Senator Barack Obama’s energy and environment Presidential campaign team, and in 2010, Lisa Jackson, the head of the US Environmental Protection Agency, appointed Michael to her National Advisory Committee. Professor Dorsey’s highly cited work seeks to understand how institutional and organizational behavior explain and inform efforts to manage the environment and to effect a just transition to sustainable development.
Dustin Schinn is a second year Master’s student at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies where he focuses on the economics, international policy and governance of climate change. Previous to that, he conducted research in the field of physical environmental sciences at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, the Northern Rivers Institute, and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. He became especially interested in sustainable development and climate change through his recent internships at the Permanent Mission of Germany to the United Nations and at the Global Environment Facility. For more information please refer to http://environment.yale.edu/profile/dustin-schinn.