Five things you need to know about the UN climate talks in New York on Tuesday

Five days before the UN climate talks in New York, this is the essential brief on what they’re about

1. They are a bonus extra in a longer UN process.

The UN have formal climate talks every year – called COPs – which shift from city to city. The main event for 2014 is Lima in December.

As Leo Hickman, Chief Advisor on climate change at WWF UK, explained: “I think it was the Warsaw COP, when that was looking like a bit of a car crash, his (Ban Ki-Moon’s) office saw an opportunity to give climate momentum before Lima, but without being officially part of the UNFCCC process.” Hickman’s already looking ahead to how this fits into the longer sweep of events in the run-up to Paris COP in 2015. He thinks the next six months are key, probably more so than the six months before Paris. He’s also got the deadline of March next year in mind, when nations have to formally submit their pledges to the UN. “Then we’ll know what that deal will look like in Paris – and I’m confident that there will be a deal – and that’s why this period is so crucial.”

2. It’s about building momentum.

“We’ve only ever seen them as a stepping stone and a momentum building, which I think was always what was intended,” Hickman explains. Part of this is a chance for delegates to showcase what they are doing domestically: “To show there is stuff going on, to show we can do this, and see off some of that fashionable pessimism that’s been around.”

As well as a marker on the way to Paris COP, this New York event is part of a larger process of climate debate going on outside of the UN. We’ve already seen a series of IPCC reports in the past year, and are due a synthesis report in November. The New Climate Economy report and Naomi Klein’s new book have also been timed for release this month. And we’ve seen reminders of our success in dealing with the ozone layer (though sadly the political context couldn’t offer similarly good headlines on the rain forests).

Like many, Peter deMenocal – professor and vice chair in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University – notes a shift starting to happen, which the talks can build on. “I think the tide is changing – a tacit acceptance that something is happening. Despite efforts to introduce uncertainty into the debate, people are realizing that there will be a change to business as usual, very likely in their lifetime, certainly in their children’s lifetime.

3. It’s about listening as well as talking.

Charlotte Wolff-Bye, Head of Sustainability Strategy at Statoil, will be at the talks, as industry representatives have been invited to showcase what they’re doing too. She’s hoping to share Statoil’s work on carbon efficiency in the oil and gas sector, and discuss carbon pricing, but mainly, she says she’s going to listen: “At the event itself, what I think will be very interesting will be to hear other perspectives. The UN is very good at bringing together stakeholders from a range of backgrounds, and we will benefit from hearing those voices. From civil society, and from unlikely partners or people or organizations in this debate. I think that’s the strength of the UN, and that’s why we want to be there, it’s more to listen.”

Peter deMenocal similarly feels the UN is at its best when it brings people together. Reflecting on UN meetings he’s participated in as a scientist, he’s especially keen to hear from those already dealing with climate change. “There are some nations like Kiribati, for example, that have an all but absent voice on the international political stage, but they are the one country that have, so far, unquestionably been impacted by climate change. They’re the canaries in the coal mine, and there are a few countries that fall under that category, that have a powerful message.”

Leo Hickman adds that perhaps most importantly the event puts a community of leaders in the same room. “It’s important, just on a human level. Some of the leaders are the same as in Copenhagen, but actually we have quite a different looking world.” The press have focused on which leader will and won’t be there, looking at the guest list, and that’s perhaps inevitable (…) It’s predictably being framed as a snub, but I don’t read it like that. What we’re hearing from colleagues in China and India is that they are still sending incredibly senior negotiators. So there will be some symbolism of X leader standing up and saying something about climate change. That is potent, and welcome, but some of the main action will be going on in the corridors.”

4. The climate clock is ticking.

If the point of these bonus talks is to help build a drum-beat of momentum for political action on climate change, a more distant drum-beat of actual climate change is happening in the background. And everyone – from academia to industry – seems increasingly aware of it.

Charlotte Wolff-Bye puts it bluntly: “We don’t have time to wait anymore. And I think people get that.” Peter deMenocal adds “There still lots of uncertainty about what exactly is going to happen, but very little of it is good. And all of it has some implication to the health and financial well-being of global populations. We’re extremely vulnerable living in this business-as-usual financial model, as the world is changing in such a fundamental way.”

5. It’s not just what happens inside the UN.

The talks sit in a whole Climate Week of activity in New York. Perhaps most significantly, a People’s Climate March is programmed for the Sunday before, with a network of linked events in cities across the globe. At the last count, there are 2,000 events planned in over 150 countries.

In New York itself, it’s especially interesting to see scientists marching under their professional identity – possibly in lab coats – not just as concerned citizens on their day off. Peter deMenocal says he’s seen a transition amongst his peers “both in terms of outreach and in terms of speaking out against misinformation or untruths.” He’s also really looking forward to the march. “I’m not a marching kind of guy. It’s not something I’d usually do, but it’s so important. It’s incredibly important to mobilise as the world’s population to get the message out, to tell our various leaders that something must be done, must be done now.”

Leo Hickman agrees it’s important: “We haven’t seen any mass mobilisations around climate for a few years, and I think that symbolism is important. It’ll show ‘we, the people, care.’ In a social media age, an event like that could be the thing the New York event gets remembered for, more than the x y or z leader spending two minutes talking about climate change at the UN.” As Charlotte Wolff-Bye agrees it’s good to see the debate moving beyond the walls of the UN: “It brings momentum to the whole debate. And differing opinions are good. We really welcome that.”

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