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“One of the Most Extraordinary Things That Has Ever Happened in Diplomacy”: Independent Diplomat’s Carne Ross on the Paris Climate Negotiations

October 7, 2016

By James Nardella - Skoll Foundation, By Carne Ross - Independent Diplomat


Social entrepreneurs work in proximity to entrenched social challenges, come to know these challenges deeply, and work wholeheartedly to bring about a new status quo. Few challenges are as complex as global climate change and we need pioneering approaches to translate the promises of the Paris climate accord into action.

Independent Diplomat, a 2013 Skoll Awardee, has creatively applied the tools of diplomacy to ensure that the countries most affected by global warming had a voice in the Paris negotiations and the leverage to hold the 191 signatories accountable. Recently, I spoke with Carne Ross, the founder and Executive Director of Independent Diplomat, and we discussed the peculiar world of climate diplomacy. Here is part of our conversation—which is even more significant in light of the recent ratification of the Paris agreement by India and the European Union, and with the 2016 United Nations Climate Change Conference set for next month in Marrakesh.

JAMES: Carne let’s just start with what brought you to this work personally.

CARNE: The short version is I wanted to be a fighter pilot but I was color blind so I became a diplomat instead. I became a British diplomat in 1989. I was Middle East expert at the UN Security Council for the Brits.

My main responsibility was Iraq, its weapons of mass destruction. Which is why I’m no longer a British diplomat, because I was one of two British diplomats to resign over the Iraq war. I gave secret testimony to the first official inquiry into the war, which eventually became public and led to a full public inquiry.

JAMES: Can you talk about the actors and forces that create the unjust equilibrium that you witness within international diplomacy?

CARNE: I think the world system is in profoundly deep trouble. The aesthetics of it present this picture of stability, order, and structure, but, in fact, it is failing to deal with the most fundamental problems that challenge human society.

That is largely because formal diplomacy is a state-based system. Government business is often conducted in secret in places like the UN, the EU, and elsewhere, bilaterally between governments.

But the world is increasingly subject to globalized forces that transcend borders, that transcend the control of individual governments. This is true in climate, terrorism, economic inequality. Governments are talking about these problems but are actually not solving them. These problems are becoming worse.

So underneath the state based system we have this bubbling cauldron of other actors, non-state actors, who are in fact the subjects of this system, and yet are not part of it, and that is a fundamental problem with the system today.

JAMES: Can you talk about how Independent Diplomat is looking to change some of the rules of engagement?

CARNE: We help countries and governments and political movements around the world that are subject to diplomatic processes and yet are not part of them, and we try to have their views heard in that process.

For example, we have advised the Marshall Islands for six or seven years on the climate change process and helped them move from being a very little player, a country of 50,000 people at excruciating risk of climate change. They are looking at the destruction of their homeland in the face. Within 50 years it is quite possible that most of the islands will be uninhabitable.

We helped transform them from being one of the 195 countries at the climate negotiations to being one of the dominant diplomatic forces in the process. And they led a coalition that made an extraordinary difference in what became the Paris treaty late last year. And actually contributed several of the most important elements of the Paris treaty. And that is because of their moral authority as a victim of climate change, but also this technical skill we helped them develop. This was the little Marshall Islands that did this, and they did it through their own dedication as much as anything.

JAMES: Take us back pre-Paris. What were the sentiments going into the convening?

CARNE: So the stakes were very high going into Paris. Could the world agree to a common approach to climate change? That was the question on the table.

Of course there were years of preparation before Paris but even as the Paris Conference opened, many of the most crucial details had not been agreed, and these were still disputed between many of the players, between powerful countries and small countries, between the global south and the more developed world.

And so these questions had to be hammered out, and I don’t think anybody was 100 percent confident that we would have a deal at the end of it. And in fact that there was a deal at the end of it was really a remarkable thing, and it’s been understated in the public discourse. These stories get swept away by the tide of daily events.

But what happened in Paris was really one of the most extraordinary things that has ever happened in diplomacy, because 195 countries signed up to a single document, a single treaty which committed them all to take action to limit carbon emissions.

It sets several goals like the 1.5º C degree of warming and carbon neutrality by 2050. Those two goals were explicit proposals of the Marshall Islands, created with the support of Independent Diplomat, and then these became the proposals of the High Ambition Coalition that gained momentum around the Marshall Islands.

JAMES: I know this coalition created the ratchet mechanism. What is it and why should we care?

CARNE: About two years ago we were looking at the components of the climate treaty and saying, “How can we make it stronger?”, and one of the components was that every 15 years countries were going to come back to Paris with new carbon emissions commitments.

So we said, “Why don’t we shorten the commitment period? Why don’t we make it five years?” And the Marshalls introduced this idea for a five-year commitment period. So we called it ratchet, that every five years they will have to come back with better commitments.

It’s one of the ways to understand the Paris treaty, it’s a vehicle for further actions, it’s not an end in itself. The coalition the Marshalls put together is called the High Ambition Coalition. It is a group of 30 countries who want better outcomes on climate.

JAMES: So if the climate accord is not legally binding before Congress, what happens at the end of Obama’s administration?

CARNE: That wholly depends on who wins the election. If it’s Hillary we are in good shape. And if it’s Trump we are in a very bad shape. It is a disaster. And the rest of the world is extremely concerned about it, you know, it’s the entire world’s problem. He will kill Paris if he comes to power. He’s already said so.

Even if it was a legally binding treaty, you know, the US could just walk away from it anyway. What’s the rest of the world going to do? Launch a war? Put sanctions on them? It’s not going to happen. So if you have an administration that decides to tear up this commitment then the rest of the world will pay a very, very heavy price.


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