A man wearing a hat made of tinfoil has just approached me in Paris. He tells me that he predicted climate change in the 1980s, but no one listened to him. Because of this he has decided to run for American Congress. Whilst I am suspicious of the effectiveness of his approach for preventing alien abduction (the power of the tinfoil hat!) and his qualifications for American politics, he is right that we’ve known the impacts of climate change for a while. Communities have recognised changes in environmental patterns over generations; scientists have been writing papers on the connections between CO2 and rising temperatures for decades; and the media has been reporting on it for more than 50 years (check out this New York Times article from 1956).
So why has it taken us until now to step up our actions towards it? One reason is that we seem to be unable to learn.
Imagine what the world would look like today if we had acted immediately on the first evidence of human-induced climate change. We could be seeing a turn towards a downwards rather than upwards trend in disaster losses. However, even now, with the evidence irrefutable and the arguments sound, states still provide fossil fuel subsidies and prioritise short term growth. They do this knowing that finding a balance between renewable and other forms of energy will in the end lead to more sustainable growth, less poverty for their citizens, fewer disasters and, perhaps, stronger political relationships. At the COP21, states negotiated the new Climate Agreement until it became weaker and weaker, and failed to commit to big enough reductions in their individual national emissions to prevent the world tipping over the scientifically-proven upper threshold of unmanageable warming. Of course, we must recognise that there are important principles and political challenges at work in the background, including the differences in the responsibility for the warming and losses we are seeing now. But even these conversations have happened time and time before, principles agreed in convention, yet the same debates start from scratch each time states gather!
Also, the UN has not learnt from previous haphazard negotiation processes. The Chair of the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) Group, Mr Giza Gaspar-Martins of Angola said of the COP21: “The process itself is a barrier to achieving the progress we need for the countries we represent. Too many simultaneous meetings mean we have little opportunity to fully represent our issues in these vital discussions.” Many states have also said they wanted more time; that an extra few days could have led to a better agreement.
Sound familiar? It feels like every UN framework agreement process has overrun or forced states to work through the night. I have horrible memories of watching the group of children who were going to perform at the closing ceremony of UNISDR’s World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Sendai this year when they were told they would no longer get the chance to dance because governments were still negotiating the Sendai Framework, 48 hours after they were meant to have finished. Imagine if UN organisers had learnt from the last dozen times and provided enough dedicated time for meaningful discussions!
Going forward, the Climate Agreement will only work if we systematically capture and build on learning from the ground. This is particularly critical for spending newly agreed adaptation finance. As the climate changes, and as livelihoods and people transform, risk reduction and adaptation solutions will need to vary in order to be appropriate and effective. We, therefore, cannot simply plug money back into the same projects. We must learn and adapt.
So what can we do to ensure our track record of failing to learn becomes a thing of the past, and that the new Climate Agreement actually builds resilience of communities? We need to ensure everyone can access local knowledge, understand its implications, and have the will to apply it. Until policymakers realise and act on what is happening at the local level, disaster risk reduction and adaptation policies and actions may remain inappropriate and ineffective. Towards this, GNDR plans to roll out the Frontline programme, which will regularly monitor local views on the priority threats they face, the actions that can reduce the impacts, and the barriers preventing change. It will then provide this information on an accessible open source platform, strengthen civil society capacities to use that information to persuade their governments to make changes, and use the findings to create a local baseline for progress against post-2015 frameworks.
We want to make sure that existing local knowledge is not ignored again, and helps us learn how to do better disaster risk reduction, adaptation and development in the future. You can read here more about Frontline and how you can engage here.