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”Too Much, Too Quickly”: UNFCCC COP23 and the Sharpening Mind

CORVALLIS OR, United States


OOSKAnews Voices is a series of guest “opinion columns” written by senior participants in different parts of the international water community. The columns provide a global platform for organizations and individuals to promulgate their views and messages.

In this article, John H. Matthews, co-founder and secretariat coordinator for the Alliance for Global Water Adaptation (AGWA), which is chaired by the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) and the World Bank, reflects on the 23rd session of the conference of parties (COP23) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Matthews’ work integrates technical and policy knowledge for climate adaptation for practical implementation. John has worked globally on these issues since 2007 and has authored many publications on adaptive management for water infrastructure and ecosystems. He has a PhD in ecology from the University of Texas and is based in the United States. (Read full article)

Recently, I visited London for work, with a rare opening of some free time on a Friday afternoon. I don’t often get to play tourist when I travel, so I ditched my laptop and headed for the underground bunker where Winston Churchill and the British government more generally ran the Empire during World War II from 1939 through 1945. The museum is dark, cramped, and brilliant. Carefully pinned maps for tracking troops and ships covered the walls amid ancient chemical toilets and tight living spaces; ministers and generals slept in closets. You left the museum sensing that giants and heroes arose from their everyday selves to meet overwhelming dangers and threats. When so much was at risk, ordinary people became exceptional and showed greatness.

The museum also led to me wonder about when greatness and sacrifice might be called forth from large numbers of people again. And my thoughts turned to Bonn, Germany, last November, and COP23.

I am not suggesting that the climate change version of Winston Churchill rose up and shook his (or her) fist at dangerous gathering forces, rousing millions of people and billions of dollars to arms. I have attended five COPs since 2009. Frankly, most of the COPs are frustrating to attend. But COP23 is the first UNFCCC meeting where fear was palpable in the presentations I saw and in the people I met. Climate impacts were here, they were serious, and many impacts were actually frightening. In the words of one participant with a large government’s aid agency: “Climate change is coming too fast and too hard. We’re not changing fast enough. And we need help.” I sensed that many individuals and institutions felt as if their options were narrowing. Adaptation used to be about projects or money and budgets. Now adaptation is a systemic need, an institutional threat. We might need to be heroic and great in the near future. Deep in the bunker, I wondered: would we rise to the occasion?

Perhaps the immediate result is that minds are sharpening, focusing. Water was present in a more thematic manner than any previous COP, hosted with the active participation of a broad range of governments: Germany, the Netherlands, Morocco, France, among others. A full Water Action Day was organized with more than 100 speakers, across multiple venues, while many water ambassadors reached out to help other “action days” on cities and forests to ensure clear messaging about how water is not a sector but an enabling resource for a wide range of climate mitigation and adaptation goals. Remarkable moments happened too: Antonio Cañas from the Environment Ministry in El Salvador gave a practical and powerful set of suggestions for how to inject water directly into the UNFCCC’s institutions — especially national plans for mitigation and adaptation (the NDCs) and climate finance. These voices are critical to defining a path towards a more effective global agreement.

The COP was by no means perfect. The actual negotiations happened a few kilometers away from most of the sessions, lending a disconnected and even irrelevant air to the many of the side events. Few actual policy and decision makers crossed over to provide a touchstone to the negotiations — or to talk about how the non-negotiators like NGOs, cities, and indigenous groups could influence and improve the UNFCCC. And on my one trip over to the negotiations, I also saw few of “us”: concerned practitioners, sorting out issues within institutions and on the ground, providing a reality check to practical action, signaling urgency.

Such divisions should just be temporary, however. Attendant minds, thinking hard about present issues, represent the critical change I saw this year. From darkest moments, we must pray will arise our finest hours.