Highlights from 2019 and the path ahead

Physical signs of climate change are accelerating as global temperatures drive towards increasingly dangerous levels. PHOTO: AFP

As this is my last column for 2019, I am going to share some of its highlights and also my verdict on the year as well as some reflections on the next year and the next decade.

In terms of the climate change issue, there were a number of important turning points in 2019. The first, and by far the most significant, one was that the real impacts of human-induced climate change that had been predicted by scientists over three decades ago finally came to pass. The severe floods, hurricanes, wild fires, melting glaciers, arctic ice and such—which had been previously predicted to take place in another decade—all happened in 2019, well ahead of schedule. It is important to remember the caveat that human-induced climate change did not cause these events, but the fact that we are responsible for having raised the global atmospheric temperature by over 1 degree Celsius since the pre-industrial period means that the severity of such natural events has indeed been enhanced due to human-induced climate change. Also, almost all of the loss and damage associated with the climatic impacts are due to their abnormally high intensity.

This means that 2019 will, in hindsight, be recognised for being the tipping point when the world finally entered the era of loss and damage from human-induced climate change impacts.

The second most important event was the action of a 15-year-old girl in Stockholm, Sweden, named Greta Thunberg, who decided to skip school every Friday and sit, all by herself, in front of the Swedish Parliament with a homemade sign saying she was on a Climate Strike. After initially being ignored, she began to gain some publicity and before long she gathered thousands and then millions of fellow school students and others who joined her #FridaysforFuture movement. She has now shot to global fame by being on the cover of Time magazine as Person of the Year for 2019.

However, her main message—that it is no longer just a climate change problem but is now, in fact, a climate emergency—has resonated across the world with many parliaments, mayors, universities and others making the declaration of climate emergency.

Bangladesh Parliament has gone one step further by declaring not just a climate emergency but a “planetary emergency” which encompasses both climate change and loss of biodiversity.

The final verdict on 2019 is in the context of the 25th annual Conference of Parties (COP25) just held in Madrid, Spain, which finally showed that the multilateral collective decision-making process under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is broken and no longer fit for purpose. This does not mean that all countries were at fault but rather that some key countries like the USA under Trump, Brazil under Bolsonaro, and Australia under Morrison have finally come clean about their core interests to defend their respective paymasters from fossil fuel and other industries, to the detriment of their own citizens as well as the rest of the world. With such powerful countries negotiating in bad faith to defend the interests of particular companies against the interests of the world, the process is no longer simply inefficient but has now been rendered quite ineffective.

The biggest systemic flaw in the mindset of these particular leaders is a zero-sum mentality where they want to defend their own country’s interests against others whereas, as the teenager Greta Thunberg can clearly see and articulate, today’s leaders need to work collectively on behalf of their own children and grandchildren.

Under these circumstances, Bangladesh and other vulnerable developing countries need to take stock of the situation and devise new tactics and methods for tackling climate change at a level commensurate with the challenge.

The first reform should be with the UNFCCC and the next COP26 to be hosted by the UK in Glasgow, Scotland where Bangladesh and other vulnerable developing countries should insist that the COP should end on time and any unfinished business should be sent to COP27. Every time the COP is extended beyond its two-week official period, as it was at COP25 in Madrid, it is deeply unfair for the delegates of vulnerable developing countries who cannot stay beyond the official period. Hence, decisions made in extra time invariably go against them, as it happened in Madrid.

The second demand should be for a parallel Action COP where the actual coalitions of the willing, who are taking actions to implement the Paris Agreement, can come and share what they are doing. This could include national and sub-national governments, companies, NGOs, academics, youth and many other actors who are actually taking actions to tackle climate change. Perhaps the Scottish government can think of hosting such an Action COP (and maybe even invite Greta Thunberg to preside over it?).

At the same time, as Bangladesh and the vulnerable developing countries pursue their tactics in the UNFCCC, they must also take their message more globally. There will be a major opportunity for Bangladesh to play this leadership role as Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina will take the Chair of the Climate Vulnerable Forum (CVF) from President Hilda Heine of Marshall Islands in mid-2020 and will have the chair for a two-year term. The CVF is a leadership group rather than a negotiating group, and can change the narrative of the most vulnerable countries from emphasising their vulnerability to developing their resilience. A recent development under the CVF has been the parallel grouping of the Finance Ministers under the label of V20, who have been taking actions at national level already. As Bangladesh’s finance minister will also now chair the V20, we can hope to play a stronger role in supporting actions to tackle climate change at local and national levels.

A major opportunity for Bangladesh to take a global lead is on the issue of adaptation to climate change and promoting South-South knowledge and experience sharing through the annual Gobeshona conference on action research on climate change every January in Dhaka. The 6th annual Gobeshona conference will be held on January 20-23, 2020 and launch the Local Adaptation Action Track of the Global Commission on Adaptation (GCA), which was set up under the co-chairmanship of Ban Ki-moon, Bill Gates and Kristina Georgieva and will culminate in an Adaptation Summit in the Netherlands in October 2020, where Sheikh Hasina has been invited to attend.

Finally, it is important to recognise that while 2019 was indeed a tipping point in the war against human-induced climate change, 2020 has the potential to become the start of a much more successful global effort to tackle climate change led by Bangladesh among other vulnerable countries. This will require a strategic approach led by the prime minister herself, with the ministries of environment, foreign affairs, defence and others playing important supporting roles. It may also be worth thinking of appointing a Climate Change Special Envoy, as many other countries have done, to represent the prime minister at important meetings at the political level. The two key qualifications for such an appointment would be someone with a diplomatic background and who also has the confidence of the prime minister.

Tackling climate change can thus become a major foreign policy strategy for Bangladesh on behalf of the vulnerable developing countries of the world.

Originally this article was published on December 25, 2019 at Daily Star. The author Dr. Saleemul Huq is the director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) at the Independent University, Bangladesh (IUB).