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“We wanted to bring everyone together to assess and support leadership, promote dialogue and build trust, and energize everyone’s ambitions."

Timmons Roberts, Watson Faculty Fellow and Ittleson Professor of Sociology and Environmental Studies

Latin American Leaders Bring Urgency, Fresh Ideas to Climate Change Conference

Promoting dialogue about climate change negotiations

Watson Institute Director Richard Locke was the first speaker and he put it plainly: “Climate change is one of the – if not the – major challenges of our time.”

Which is why Watson played host April 16 and 17 to top Latin American leaders – including Ricardo Lagos, former president of Chile, and Felipe Calderon, former president of Mexico – to discuss global climate change talks. Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, made a special address by satellite feed.

Conference conversation boiled down to two topics. One: How to break an impasse to create a fair and forceful United Nations treaty that reduces carbon emissions. Two: The role Latin America can play in the negotiations as diplomatic leaders and as environmental models.

The conference was organized by the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, led by Watson faculty fellow Richard Snyder and by Brown’s Climate Development Lab, led by Watson faculty fellow Timmons Roberts and Center for Environmental Studies research fellow Guy Roberts.

It was attended by more than 50 policymakers, climate negotiators, researchers, activists, and students from Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Mexico, Panama, and Peru, as well the United Kingdom and the United States, who packed the Joukowsky Forum. But the audience was wider. Public panels were streamed live over the Internet and, with 1,200 global viewers, the webcast was one of the largest in Watson history. Social media buzz was big: more than 300 Twitter posts about the conference reached the smartphones – and eyeballs – of more than 150,000 people worldwide.

Lisa Friedman, deputy editor of the Washington, D.C.-based news service ClimateWire and a panel moderator, said the Watson conference allowed climate leaders to share ideas away from divisive United Nations negotiating tables, and it cast a spotlight on progressive Latin American countries that don’t get a lot of press.

“I think this conference was really helpful as a platform to help people understand the complexity of the negotiations while highlighting the nuanced roles that Latin American countries are playing,” Friedman said.

Urgency colored the conversation.

Despite dire warnings about sea level rise, crop destruction, water shortages, and disease outbreaks induced by climate change, there is no global action plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions – 17 years after the adoption of the now-expired Kyoto Protocol.

Roadblocks to a new, universal, legally binding agreement are many. One is a split between developed countries – who’ve contributed most to past emissions and are on the hook for paying for their reduction – and developing countries – who are likely to produce more emissions in the future and are on the hook not to do so. It’s a rich vs. poor schism that has framed, and stymied, the debate.

But there’s hope.

The annual United Nations Climate Change Conference, also known as the Conference of the Parties, or COP, brings together representatives of the 195 countries cooperating to respond to climate change. In December 2015, the COP will gather in Paris, where it is expected to approve a final deal. This December, the COP meet in Lima, Peru, where representatives are expected to craft a draft deal.

“Our goal is to be helpful to the team in Peru,” said Roberts, the Ittleson Professor of Environmental Studies and Sociology at Brown. “We wanted to bring everyone together to assess and support leadership, promote dialogue and build trust, and energize everyone’s ambitions. We’ve got 18 months to get to a deal.”

Participants offered several ideas to make it happen, including:

  • Make it equal. Lagos, a professor at large at Brown and the former special UN envoy for climate change, said distinctions between developed and developing countries are no longer useful. “It is possible to make everyone responsible – on a voluntary basis,” he said. “That would be a huge step forward.”
  • Follow the money. “It’s the economy, stupid,” said Calderon. Now chair of the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, Calderon said arguments for solar investments, reforestation, and other emission-reducing efforts should focus not only on how they improve the environment, but how they create jobs and reduce poverty. “The scientists have rested their case,” he said. “We need to produce economic arguments for tackling climate change.”
  • Keep it simple. Sir David King, the United Kingdom Foreign Secretary’s Special Representative for Climate Change, suggested a simple emissions capping formula. All countries should pledge that by 2050 each of their citizens produce no more than 2 tons of greenhouse gases per year. King said this meets the U.N. target of stabilizing warming to under 2 degrees Celsius and is “concrete, quantifiable, and equitable.”
  • Change the story. Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, minister of the environment of Peru and the COP20 president, said the narrative of failure and lethargy that surrounds the U.N. talks needs to change to one of success and urgency. Monica Araya, executive director of the climate think tank Nivela, said that story must also put the public interest front-and-center and expose the politicians blocking progress.

Several speakers said Latin America is critical for forging an agreement.

 The region has key natural resources, such as the Amazon, that require protection, collaborative leaders trying to bridge divisions between rich and poor countries, and ambitious climate change policies such as Coast Rica’s pledge to be the first carbon neutral country by 2021.

Figueres, of Costa Rica, said: “No Latin American country is doing enough, but many countries on our continent are moving forward.”

-- Wendy Lawton

Conference Sponsors: The Watson Institute For International Studies, The Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, The Climate and Development Lab at Brown, The Center for Environmental Studies, The Office of President Christina Paxson and The Starr Lectureship Fund