Bangladesh as a Weak Power Climate Leader -Dr. Alice Baillat

Keynote speech of  Dr. Alice Baillat at 4th Gobeshona Conference, 8 January 2018

Have you ever asked yourself why weaker parties continue to negotiate with stronger parties in multilateral negotiations while they are a priori certain to lose? How a country like Bangladesh can expect to get something from climate negotiations when, around the same table, you have most powerful countries defending conflicting interests?

Those questions have been at the heart of my PhD research that analyzes the workings of the Bangladesh’s climate policy and diplomacy. When I started, I was curious to question what seems to me to be a paradoxical identity. Both inside and outside the country, Bangladesh is alternatively depicted as one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change, but also as a champion of adaptation and a model to follow in this field. Can a country be at the same time vulnerable and resilient? To what extent is it strategic to play both cards in the UN climate governance?

My answer to this apparent paradox is to define Bangladesh as a “Weak Power Climate Leader”. By weak power, I mean the capacity of Bangladesh to transform its vulnerability into a comparative advantage and a diplomatic tool to increase its influence on negotiation processes. In other terms, the vulnerability of Bangladesh is positively correlated with its influence in climate negotiations, and is a lever for political action.

The concept of weak power pushes us to change our perception of vulnerable countries that are far from being only victims, but also active players of the fight against climate change.
Before introducing more in details this idea of weak power, I would like to say that it is with some emotion that I am taking the floor today. I come back to Bangladesh after more than four years since I came. And I am enthusiastic to see to what extent the country has changed or is remained the same. And of course, to see again friendly and familiar faces. But it is quite challenging to come here to share the key insights of my research in front of some of the persons whose practices and discourses I have deconstructed in a critical way. And I would like to use this opportunity to say a big thank you to Saleemul Huq for his invitation to give a speech today, and for all the time he has given to me while I was a Visiting researcher at ICCCAD.

To understand how the weak power is exercised, we need to consider both theresources developed at the national level, and the strategies and forms of leadership detained in climate negotiations. Let me first start with the internal dynamics that have enabled Bangladesh to acquire what I’ve called a “first mover advantage”.

Because of its severe exposition to tropical cyclones and floods, Bangladesh has acquired since its independence a strong experience to deal with natural disasters. The people of Bangladesh have adapted their homes, their villages and their crops to cope with frequent flooding. The government has undertaken plans and programs for reducing human and material losses due to disasters, in partnership with NGOs and experts. Those efforts have allowed major successes: the death toll from cyclones in Bangladesh has, for example, decreased significantly over time. Of course, the increasing frequency and intensity of natural disasters, because of climate change, pose major present and future challenges for the country. But Bangladesh is still well ahead of many countries, including developed ones, in disaster management.

The same is true for adaptation. Climate change will have devastating impacts on lives, livelihoods and economic growth. It threatens the ambition of the country to become a middle-income country by its 50th anniversary of its independence in 2021. The government has thus been very proactive to develop forward-looking policy initiatives to mitigate adverse impacts of climate change.

Let me give you two brief examples. Bangladesh has been the first least developed country to frame a comprehensive climate change strategy and action plan in 2009. It is also the first developing country to establish a national climate fund in 2009 with its own resources, showing to the rest of the world that the country is not waiting for outside help but acting now and despite its limited resources and governance problems.

The government has been praised by international community for its pioneering role in the adaptation field. The Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, has, for instance, received in 2015 the United Nations Champion of the Earth award for her “outstanding leadership on the frontline of climate change”.

But beside governmental efforts, no one can understand how Bangladesh is became a champion of adaptation without considering its vibrant NGO sector and extraordinary community resilience. Lots of Bangladeshi people are living in precarious conditions and hostile environment. But it is fascinating to observe the resilience of these people that never give up: some of them move several
times when erosion takes away their homes; folks who lose their homes due to cyclones rebuild their houses. Again, and again, Bangladeshi people move forward to build a better life. They have accumulated an experiential knowledge that is an immense resource for everyone, to deal with climate change impacts.

NGO sector has also played a key role in implementing innovative programs to increase the awareness of climate change risks amongst the most vulnerable populations, to provide them basic services, and to help them turning their local knowledge into sources of resilience.
If adaptation is a top priority for Bangladesh, the country has also shown its commitment for fighting climate change in investing in energy transition.

Bangladesh has already the fastest growing solar home system dissemination in the world, supplying electricity to around 20 million households especially in remote areas. And this rapid development of renewable energy in the country would not have been possible without important efforts to involve private sector in climate finance.

What’s the point I want to make here? My point is that vulnerability has been a fertile ground for innovation and experimentation. Bangladesh has acquired a “first mover advantage” in being the first to develop adaptation and disaster risk reduction policies. The country has been an example of good practices in these fields, and set up as a model to follow. We have more to learn from a poor country like Bangladesh in terms of climate and disaster resilience, than from the most developed countries. If you want to learn about resilience, Bangladesh is the place to be.

This point leads me to another building block of the weak power, that is deeply connected to the first mover advantage. It is the idea that Bangladesh is became a Southern expertise hub for research on adaptation. As Saleemul Huq said one day “one of the peculiar features of adaptation as a science is that the rich have no advantage. The poor have a comparative advantage because they sit on the problem and they have to face it”.

Bangladesh is often placed to the top of international rankings such as the Climate Change Vulnerable Index of Maplecroft. This recognition has placed the country under the spotlight and provoked a renewed attention from international donors and experts. Bangladesh became a very attractive place for foreign scientists willing to analyze the already observable impacts of global
warming. They have developed, in partnership with national experts, pilot research projects and new methodologies. The Action Research for Community Adaptation in Bangladesh, or ARCAB program, is a very good example of this. ARCAB is a long-term and collaborative platform for action-research on community-based adaptation to climate change, gathering international and national NGOs and experts.

The Gobeshona conference is also a perfect example of this, as it brings each year in Bangladesh national and international scientists and practitioners working on climate change, and who can share knowledge with mutual benefit.
Because vulnerability has been a fertile ground for innovation and experimentation in Bangladesh, it has also been a strong asset for Bangladesh’s leadership in scientific studies on climate adaptation. And it has contributed to its international scientific prestige in this field of research.
A noteworthy evidence of this is to look at the contribution of Bangladeshi scientists to the IPCC reports. It is well known that Northern expertise is much more represented in the IPCC reports than the Southern expertise on climate change. However, when you look at the national origin of contributing authors, Bangladesh is over-represented compared to others least developed countries in Working Group 2 on Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability.

The first mover advantage, as well as the intellectual leadership of Bangladesh in the field of adaptation, are two key components of the weak power. Bangladesh has emerged as an proactive player in the fight against climate change, paving the way for ambitious adaptation measures. But Bangladesh also became a leading voice among the least developed countries in the COPs.

There are two main kinds of strategies used by Bangladesh and other vulnerable and poor states, to defend their interests in climate negotiations that I would like to mention here: the first one relates to their moral leadership, and the second one to coalition building with state and non-state actors.

As the most vulnerable states but also the least responsible for greenhouse gas emissions, poor Asian and African states are considered as “innocent victims” of climate change. This recognition gives to these countries a moral leadership that is an important asset for them in negotiations. They make emotional statements in the COPs to raise international attention on their vulnerabilities and to alert the world on the dangers of climate change that could displace millions of people in the world, threaten human security or even sometimes national security. Strategic use of alarmist scenarios, either they are real or exaggerated, help to put pressure on developed countries to assume their moral duty in considering special needs of most vulnerable countries.

Vulnerable states have claimed to have the moral right to request strict targets – such as the 1.5°C threshold instead of 2°C – to ask for assistance – such as priority in receiving funding for adaptation and technology transfer – and to demand immediate, ambitious and binding action from all countries.

Unfortunately, the effect of this moral leadership is more symbolic than real. Industrialized countries are far from meeting their commitments in terms of climate finance and, so they fail to address the needs of developing countries. But this moral leadership has yet helped to give a stronger visibility and voice to these countries that are too often marginalized in international negotiations.

Another powerful strategy used by every country in a multilateral negotiation but that is particularly important for weaker parties is to negotiate collectively. While these countries are rather weak alone, they become stronger together.

Delegations from developing countries are constrained in their capacity to participate effectively in decision-making processes in many ways: their national delegations are often tiny, which makes them unable to attend all the different parallel negotiation meetings; they lack expertise on the various issues at stake in the negotiations; or some delegations suffer linguistic problems when they come, for instance, from French-speaking countries. Building coalitions is thus a key strategy for weaker parties that want to overcome these barriers to their effective participation.
We can identify two ways through which weaker parties increase their influence by acting collectively.

The first way is by seeking logistical and scientific support from NGOs and experts. A good illustration of this are for example, training and support programs implemented by the European Capacity Building Initiative. This joint program aims to develop skills and capacity among developing country negotiators so that they can better represent their countries’ interests.

This partnership between state and non-state actors also takes the form of a participation of NGO members and academics in the national delegations. This strategy is become common for LDCs to increase both the size of their delegation and their expertise on specific issues. When you look at the Bangladesh delegation, which is quite big in size given its limited human and financial resources, you note that several leading national experts in the field of climate change are part of the delegation from the beginning of the UNFCCC negotiations to assist government officials.

While LDCs are developing their negotiation capacities, they also organize themselves into specific political groupings to join their forces and defend a common position. The G77+China remains the key negotiating block for developing countries within the UNFCCC. But the heterogeneity of this group and growing disparities between emerging economies and others make difficult a proper representation of the specific concerns of LDCs.

The LDC group has thus emerged in 2001, as well as the Climate Vulnerable Forum more recently. The CVF is not a negotiating group per se, but is become a very vocal advocacy group since the COP21. You probably remember the successful CVF’s campaign prior to and during the COP21 that led to the recognition of the safe threshold of 1.5°C in the Paris Agreement. The CVF has played a key role in providing a fresh and positive momentum during the
COP21, and this role continues today.

A major collective achievement of the LDC group is without any doubt the successful introduction of the loss and damage issue on the UNFCCC agenda. They succeed in the adoption of the Article 8 in the Paris Agreement, despite initial reluctance from developed countries that would prefer to keep loss and damage as a sub-category of adaptation.

It is true that this victory must be qualified, since the devil is often in the details: a provision states in the article that the inclusion of loss and damage in the Paris Agreement cannot provide any basis for liability. And following discussions at COP22 and COP23 have shown little progress in the implementation of this article 8.

However, for vulnerable countries engaged in the issue, and Bangladesh has been a key designer and promoter of loss and damage, the standalone recognition of loss and damage in the Paris Agreement as well as the perpetuation of the Warsaw International Mechanism still represent a success.

Now that I am close to the end of my speech, what conclusion should we draw from all of this? Bangladesh is a Weak Power Climate Leader because the country has been able to transform its vulnerability as an asset to develop forward-looking climate policies and a strong expertise on adaptation.

The country also conducts an active diplomacy in the UNFCCC, along with other vulnerable states with whom it shares a moral leadership and collective interests. And those countries have been able to shape climate negotiations much more than the initial power distribution could suggest.

Of course, this weak power remains per definition weak. It does not reverse the asymmetrical nature of multilateral negotiations. Weaker parties can successfully influence the negotiation process and the agenda setting of the UNFCCC. But they still lack power to effectively influence the outcomes, that remain a result of bargaining between stronger parties.

This weak power is also fragile. Political instability, poor governance, non-sustainable political commitment, insufficient investment in training and education constitute some limitations of a sustainable pursuit of weak power. Universities have a crucial role to play in this regard. They must develop adequate trainings so that young people in developing countries can become entrepreneurs and problem solvers for their country, but also for the rest of the world.

I’d like to conclude by saying that the current context offers a tremendous opportunity for most vulnerable countries to increase their leadership in the climate change regime. They can partly fill the leadership vacuum left by the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. And they have already started. A show of their growing leadership is, for instance, the unilateral declaration of the CVF countries at the end of the COP22 in Marrakech, when these countries have announced their intention to shift to 100 percent renewable energy by 2050,without any preconditions.

Most vulnerable countries are the best guardians of the climate regime, and they can pave the way for more ambitious climate action in future. The time has really come to change our perception about these countries. They are not passive victims receiving lessons from the rest of the world. They have emerged as key players of the fight against climate change. And they can give lessons to the
world that we should listen.

Thank you very much for your attention.

About Dr. Alice Baillat

Dr. Alice Baillat is a Research fellow at the French Institute for International and Strategic
Affairs (IRIS), Associate researcher at CERI/Sciences Po, ICCCAD Alumni .