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Professor Attends UN Climate Negotiations

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This week, Heads of State have convened in Paris for the 21st Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change ( COP21) to try to reach a global agreement to reduce carbon emissions. Professor Paul Wapner is attending COP21 to conduct research on the negotiations. Before he left for Paris, we asked Wapner, an expert on global environmental politics, to tell us more about his research and how the summit will influence the global race against climate change.

What are the main climate change issues that will be addressed at COP21? And, what is the goal of the conference?

COP21 aims to provide a legal framework for cooperative measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, adapt to a changing climate, and finance transition to a post-carbon world—especially for developing countries. Nations have already submitted intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs), which are voluntary commitments for reducing carbon emissions.

The goal of the conference is to set up a legal architecture for helping countries to comply with their own commitments, upgrade those commitments in the future, and establish common understandings for future actions.

What research will you be conducting at COP21?

My research focuses on climate suffering, so I will be tracking negotiations about "loss and damage"—how developed countries will respond to the climate change hardships experienced by developing countries— as well as adaptation and climate justice.

In 1992, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) established the principle of "common but differentiated responsibilities" for responding to climate change. The UN recently reiterated that principle in preparatory meetings for Paris. My research aims to understand how this principle is translated into practice at the international governance level.

How do you hope this summit will further your research?

First, I believe there is simply no substitute for observing the unfolding of international regimes. In 1992, I attended the UN conference on environment and development in Rio, also known as the Earth Summit. I learned more in my two weeks in Rio about global environmental governance than I could have from reading scores of books. In Paris, I welcome the opportunity to receive access to the official governmental negotiating site.

The Paris meetings will be pressure cookers for the codification of global climate policy. By witnessing this, I hope to gain tremendous knowledge about global environmental governance. I also hope to learn about the way the world community gathers to address climate change.

In addition to observing governments, I will also be studying civil society actors who are coming to Paris in droves to try to influence both legal and cultural outcomes. Business, activist, and cultural organizations of all sorts will be trying to spin global climate affairs so as to direct the trajectory of how the world will address climate change. Any meaningful way forward will require much more than government action, although governmental leadership is essential. I intend to chart the articulation of civil society activities and interpret such voices for understanding the unfolding of global climate politics.

In terms of policy, what do you hope COP21 will accomplish?

Ideally, diplomats and Heads of State will agree on a framework for international action. To be sure, they will be underlining their INDCs but everyone already knows that these commitments are insufficient to meet the previously agreed upon goal of keeping global average temperatures from rising above two degrees Celsius. Thus, the work in Paris is to figure out how to capitalize on INDCs and ratchet up commitments in the future.

Furthermore, the goal is to work out the financing of global action on behalf of climate stability. This includes agreeing on technology transfers, regional cap and trade systems, and meaningful sustainable development assistance. Included in all of this are the financial commitments developed countries will make to developing ones. This is essential since many developing country INDCs are contingent on receiving financial assistance.

Do you think the recent attacks will add another dimension to the negotiations?

The recent attacks have changed the Paris meetings insofar as all open, large-scale civil society meetings are now banned. This removes an important forum for the voices of the nongovernmental sector, which usually includes those most vulnerable to climate change yet those least responsible for it (i.e. usually activists from developing countries). It also removes the possibility of a spectacle that the world can watch and relate to.

In terms of official activity, the attacks may help or hurt negotiations. Many countries may come to Paris united in an effort to work on behalf of global wellbeing in an act of defiance against those who wish to sow havoc on the world community. More generally, the attacks may engender warm feelings toward France and its efforts to craft an effective climate agreement. Alternatively, the attacks may serve to distract negotiators, leading to challenges in international agreement.

I think the best form of response to the attacks is to demonstrate that the world can come together to address common problems. Climate change will affect everyone. Paris can demonstrate not just willingness, but a capability to address such global problems.