Brigid Bergin: It's The Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC. Welcome back, everyone. I'm Brigid Bergin, filling in for Brian today. Now, we turn to the climate segment of the week with the news that the United States now welcomes the United Nations Guidelines to set up a loss and damage fund due to climate change. Last year, the 27th United Nations Climate Change Conference, also known as COP27, the US led developed countries in resisting language that would make richer countries the source of funding, even though they've arguably contributed more pollution over time. Now, ahead of the 28th conference, it looks like the US will join the negotiations table once again.
COP28 will be held in Dubai this year, starting on November 30th. Joining me now to break down what the US will pledge going into global COP28 climate talks and what's at stake this year is Bob Berwyn, science correspondent for Inside Climate News. Welcome to WNYC, Bob.
Bob Berwyn: Hi, it's great to be here, and thanks for having me.
Brigid Bergin: Well, we're so glad that you're going to help us unpack some of what is in this framework. The framework that the UN has laid out at COP27 was what the US walked away from during a really critical moment in that meeting. Can you explain for us what happened there?
Bob Berwyn: Sure. The critical meeting, I think that you're referring to that the US walked away from at the very end actually was just about a week ago in Abu Dhabi, and it was part of a six-month series of negotiations on setting up recommendations for a loss and damage fund. Just as the document was being accepted on a consensus basis, the US negotiator apparently left the room and then returned and said, "Wait, we weren't here, so it's not a consensus." There was a little unclarity at the end of this process.
Several days later, the US then clarified its position and said, "Now, we're satisfied that we understand what everybody's being asked to agree to. We welcome this set of recommendations for a loss and damage fund." It's connected to COP27 from last year because that was when all 198 countries there agreed that this loss and damage fund should go forward. That triggered this rather long set of negotiations that literally ended just last week, and it leads directly into COP28, which you mentioned coming up because it will once again be a key item on the agenda there.
Brigid Bergin: Bob, this show has covered the Conference of Parties or COP for short in recent years. Can you give us a COP 101? When did the conference start, and what have its biggest accomplishments been to date? How binding are its resolutions?
Bob Berwyn: The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change came into being about 1990. Starting in about 1992, there have been annual meetings where all the countries get together and try to determine a climate policy right from the start. The goal was to limit harmful global warming. There's not really much else to it and to ensure hopefully fair and sustainable development. There are no legally binding or mandatory elements to it. It's all based on voluntary contributions, what each country, each nation brings to COP, and what they're willing to agree on as they meet once a year. It's also important to remember that they don't just meet once a year.
There's a steady office in Bonn, Germany, and they have meetings each half year in-between the main COPs, and there are subsidiary technical committees that basically keep working all yearlong. What they do is try to make incremental progress toward reducing emissions, toward limiting harmful global warming. By far, the biggest achievement out of this is the Paris Climate Agreement. Countries set really firm targets and a voluntary mechanism to reach those targets with voluntary reviews, voluntary Nationally Determined Contributions, and a five-year checkup, which is significant right now because of COP28, which would be the first time that we're doing this.
The UN has its own language. They call it a global stocktake. I call it a checkup on the climate promises that have been made. One thing that is important, is that I think sometimes the expectations going into these conferences are a little high. Sometimes, I think some people expect, or even many people some sort of major new agreement or new deal that's going to save the climate, so to say. There is no silver bullet. There's no COP fairy that's going to wave a wand and fix the climate. COP is what individual countries bring to the table and decide to agree on. Nothing more, nothing less.
Brigid Bergin: Before we get too far to the discussion of COP28 and the expectations there, I want to rewind for a moment and talk about this loss and damage fund that's been in the news in recent years.
Bob Berwyn: [crosstalk].
Brigid Bergin: You report it's been around at least formally since about 2007 at COP13. It's a technical United Nations umbrella term. Can you talk about what it encompasses?
Bob Berwyn: It encompasses setting up a fund that will help developing poorer countries deal with climate impacts that they otherwise are really almost unable to deal with because in some cases, the scope of some of the climate disasters has become so intense that it's wiping out, in one case of a hurricane, I think in Dominica, 80% of the country's gross national product. The costs are just beyond what any single country can afford in some cases.
Since this term was first mentioned as part of the UN climate process, countries have been wrestling with a way to set this up and do it in a way that avoids liability for past damages because none of the countries that produce a lot of greenhouse gas emissions necessarily want to be on the hook legally for all the damage that's already been caused. The loss and damage fund is something to address things going forward. From now on, there'll be a board of directors on this loss and damage fund. You can think of it as a bank that will offer grants and direct budget assistance in the face of these increasing climate disasters that we're seeing and that are affecting developing countries more.
They just have less ability to deal with--
Brigid Bergin: The disaster, sure.
Bob Berwyn: To repair infrastructure once it's been destroyed. There's a level of this too, of at least trying to think about addressing losses that are really hard to attach a monetary value to. There are burial grounds being lost in Pacific Islands and sacred cultural sites that have been used by communities for thousands of years that are being lost to sea level rise. There are several million people living in the Arctic in snow-dependent cultures who are really at risk of losing the basis for their way of life. These are things that are hard to put a dollar figure on.
Brigid Bergin: Absolutely. Listeners, we can take a few of your questions for our guest, Bob Berwyn, science correspondent for Inside Climate News and a longtime climate reporter. You can call us at 212-433-WNYC. That's 212-433-9692. Anyone following the saga of the United States and the way the country is positioning its role in climate leadership, you can call us now to weigh in on that, and what you think developed nations should or shouldn't contribute monetarily to the climate change relief. The number is 212-433-WNYC. Again, that's 212-433-9692. You can also text us at that number. Bob, we have a caller, Andrew from Brooklyn. Andrew, thanks for calling WNYC.
Andrew: Oh, hi, Brigid. Hi, Bob. I just wanted to make a brief comment, that it's impossible to take any of this seriously, or do you think about what nuanced discussions might happen happen at the conference when they do it in Dubai? It's another country, the United Arab Emirates, that's just rich on fossil fuel money. They're doing sportswashing, greenwashing, political washing like the Saudis and the Qataris. I'm so cynical and skeptical, and it's just really sad. If there's a response, I'll take it off the air. Thank you for listening.
Brigid Bergin: Andrew, thanks for your call. I'll just add, Bob, that the BBC reported in January, 2023 that the head of one of the world's biggest oil companies has been named to lead the COP28 global climate talks in Dubai. Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber is currently the Chief Executive Officer of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company. Are you familiar with that story, and is that still the case? Then just generally, reaction to Andrew's point.
Bob Berwyn: Sure. The first general reaction is that out of the 28 COPs, about 15 have been held in what we would call fossil-producing countries where fossil fuels are a big part of the economy. It's easy to be cynical about the process. It's a lot harder to try and find the good in it. I always ask myself, would we be better off without it right now? Would our emissions be higher or lower? The third thing, just a technical point, is that again, what I said earlier, COP is a group of 198 countries.
Even if the conference is in Dubai and even if the president is an executive with the national oil company of that country, there's nothing in the rules of the United Nations that could stop those 198 countries from, for example, adopting a fossil fuel phaseout on day one of the conference. The fact that it's in Dubai or the fact of who the president is couldn't stop them from doing that.
Brigid Bergin: Sure. I want to make sure that we put a fine point on it, about what is expected of the United States at the end of this month when COP28 takes place in terms of an actual monetary commitment that the US is supposed to make or any terms that they have more explicitly said that they would pledge than what we've seen over the years when it comes to climate.
Bob Berwyn: Specifically to loss and damage, John Kerry went on record a couple of days ago saying that the US will contribute something. He talked about several millions of dollars and didn't offer a specific figure, and those numbers I'm sure will be up for negotiation. I think the US is going to focus on reducing methane, also at this conference once again. Again, it's an ongoing process. There's not going to be one big thing that the US is going to bring to the table and say, this is going to solve the climate crisis.
Brigid Bergin: You've written that the reticence expressed by American officials fit a historic pattern of US ambivalence in the climate talks, often claiming leadership but then turning around and rejecting multilateralism completely. How has the US engaged with the COP in previous years, and is there anything to be optimistic about in this upcoming conference?
Bob Berwyn: Well, I would say that under the current administration, the US brings a lot more to the table than under the past administration and is more engaged in the process. Even though still constrained by domestic politics in terms of how much funding it commits to anything internationally, which needs congressional approval in a lot of cases, the US has great climate science, for example, that it can bring to the table and share and technical innovation. Those are areas that the US is always focused on.
Brigid Bergin: Listeners, if you're just joining us, my guest is Bob Berwyn, science correspondent for Inside Climate News and a longtime climate reporter. We're talking about COP28 upcoming climate talks that'll be taking place starting on November 30th and located in Dubai. The number is 212-433-9692. Again, that's 212-433-WNYC. Let's go to Bill in Queens. Bill, thanks for calling WNYC.
Bill: Hi. I'm wondering if your guest could [sound cut] told came out-- Hello?
Brigid Bergin: Go ahead, Bill.
Bill: If your guest could comment on a report that I was told came out today under the authorship of the United States called Climate Assessment Survey, which apparently is done every five years. They report the damage done by climate on an annual basis. It was reported to be in the ''tens of billions'' and I'm sure it's more than tens of billions. I'm wondering if the guest is familiar with that report, if that's available to the public with limited media connections, and so forth.
Brigid Bergin: Sure. Bill, thanks so much for your call. Bob, I know you're really focused on COP28 at the moment, but any initial reaction?
Bob Berwyn: Yes, I can answer those questions. The National Climate Assessment is available to the public. Type it into Google. It'll come up. It's NCA5, the Fifth National Climate Assessment. I can briefly describe what it is. It's a great resource for Americans. It's focused on the US and US territories, it has really specific geographic breakdowns and different categories of climate impacts and climate changes, which are pretty varied according to where you live in the United States, and it's really easy to search. It's authored by some of the best climate scientists in the world.
The climate damage estimates in there are pretty much in line with what we hear on an annual basis from NOAA, which keeps track on a running basis of billion-dollar climate disasters. They've been increasing each year dramatically in the last 10 or 15 years. The National Climate Assessment puts that all together.
One of the really, I think new things about this year's National Climate Assessment, as it was reported by my colleagues at Inside Climate News, is that, and this ties back to our loss and damage discussion, it really connects climate solutions with environmental justice and makes it clear that you have to address some fundamental, environmental, and economic inequities in order to find sustainable climate solutions.
Brigid Bergin: Bob, we have a bunch of really interesting calls coming in. One, just picking up on your point just a moment ago about the loss and damage fund, I have Mook from Santa Barbara, California. Mook, welcome to WNYC.
Mook: Hi, Brigid. Hi, Bob.
Bob Berwyn: Hi.
Mook: I was just wondering whether or not this decision could be reversed. For example, we saw a few years ago that when the new administration came in, they pulled out of the Paris Agreement. If there's a new administration, say next year, could they say reverse and pull out of the loss and damage group? If we commit money, how committed is that money? Could that also be pulled out? Just wondering about the reversibility of this decision. Thank you.
Bob Berwyn: Good questions. Yes, it can be reversed. We've seen that previously where the US has committed to other climate funds, the green climate funds specifically, and one of the first things the Trump administration did was reverse that funding. That's very possible, and it's all voluntary anyway. It'll probably be year-to-year, which isn't really adequate. It doesn't address the needs. There needs to be a really steady source of funding for this. Those are all really valid, legitimate concerns.
Brigid Bergin: Mook, thanks as always for your very smart calls and questions. Let's go to Ellen in Manhattan. Ellen, thanks for calling WNYC.
Ellen: Good morning. Thanks for taking my call. I'd like to talk about the issue of militarism and climate change, given that the US military, for example, is the largest institutional emitter of carbon gases and the largest institutional user of fossil fuels. It's my understanding that all the previous COP agreements have in fact included a specific clause that military emissions don't have to be reported. It seems to me like an elephant in the room here. Why aren't people talking about these ridiculous military jets and the amount of carbon that they're spewing into the air? Thank you.
Brigid Bergin: Ellen, thanks for that question. Go ahead, Bob.
Bob Berwyn: That's a great question and a great comment. Actually, we should be talking about that more. I'm not sure exactly how to go about doing that. We should be reporting on it more too, and it's a discussion we've had in our newsroom. We've touched on it in connection with specific things like the Ukraine war, not only emissions but the other environmental damage that's caused. I think if you take it to an even bigger level, I was listening to a panel recently with some scientists moderated by Jeffrey Sachs at Columbia University. He said, "We know that there are technical solutions to the climate crisis. We know what to do in terms of energy use and how to reduce carbon emissions."
Then he made a comment that startled me. He said, "Unfortunately, it seems at the moment, we just have a lot of governments in the world that like war." He left it at that and said, "That's probably a topic for a separate discussion." As your caller said, "Maybe, it's time to start really having that discussion." Another interesting aspect to that is that I learned from a great book called The Nutmeg's Curse by Amitav Ghosh, is how much of the US military in particular is deployed simply to protect fossil fuel interests, meaning the tanker routes, the pipelines, the oil fields all over the world, and so forth.
You could almost see that if we stop using fossil fuels and switch to domestically produced renewables, you may see some emissions cuts just from that because we wouldn't have to have hundreds of ships and airplanes in motion at all times to ensure the security of that fossil fuel infrastructure.
Brigid Bergin: So interesting.
Bob Berwyn: That's one way to think about it. A huge amount of our bases and all the transportation that goes with that and all the logistics and training is all related to protecting fossil fuel interests all over the world.
Brigid Bergin: Bob, before we let you go, as we said in the intro, those climate talks will begin at the end of November, what stories will you be keeping an eye out for?
Bob Berwyn: That's another good question. I have a few things in mind. I want to spend a full day with somebody at the talks and just follow them through the day, a whole day of hectic negotiations and learn about it a little bit, find out why they're into it, and so on. There's a push by European countries right now to try and wrangle up a global coalition for a real fossil fuel phaseout, and that speaks to, I think the first question where we're talking about having this in a fossil-fueled country.
I think there's some feelings that this is the moment to bring that to a head and at least put it on the table. Again, since it's an incremental process, I don't know that they necessarily expect to get that this year, but the way COP works is you put it on the table. You build coalitions. You work on getting people to agree on stuff. One person specifically said, "Yes, we're looking at two years from now when COP is in Brazil with maybe somebody, one perceived to be a more climate-friendly host, that that would be the year to achieve that, and everybody might be ready for it."
Brigid Bergin: Well, we will have to leave it there for now. Lots to follow coming out of these talks. I'm sure we will be reading your reporting then. This has been our climate segment of the week. My guest has been Bob Berwyn, science correspondent for Inside Climate News. Thanks so much for coming on today and explaining this to us.
Bob Berwyn: Absolutely. I'm happy to come back and have a good day.
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