25 years later: When the world united against climate change

The Paris climate deal was the latest chapter of a story that started a quarter of a century ago, and owes much to US Republicans and UK Conservatives

George Bush, President of the United States, signing the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (Pic: UN Photos)

George Bush, President of the United States, signing the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (Pic: UN Photos)

By Ed King

It was an era when the weight of a laptop could break your knees, phones were the size of bricks and twitter was left to the birds.

But if communications technology in the late 1980s seems rudimentary compared to today’s standards, the scale and pace of global diplomacy was the opposite.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Soviet Union had disintegrated and the Cold War thawed. One academic even predicted the end of history.

It was a fast evolving world. The Montreal Protocol was signed in 1989, the Chemical Weapons Accord in 1990. In 1992 the European Union and Euro came into being.

Yet another existential threat was brewing. Throughout the 1980s research papers on the build-up of greenhouse gases started to appear.

Malta urged the General Assembly to consider the implications of global warming in 1988, the same year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was born.

By the end of the decade, understanding of what the burning of oil, gas and coal could cause prompted UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher to issue an impassioned call to arms at the UN.

This was the start of an unpredictable tale of high ambition, missed chances and bitter politics.

Of secret oil-funded campaigns to discredit scientists, clashing ideologies and weary negotiators. It was the start of the road to the 2015 Paris climate agreement.

By December 1990, international talks were mandated by the UN, and in February 1991, work started in earnest on a new global climate pact in Chantilly, Virginia.

These were days when some Republicans did believe climate science, hence the offer by George Bush’s White House to host talks – albeit some way from Washington DC.

“President Bush had moved the negotiations out of the capital, into the backwoods,” recalls Jeremy Leggett in his book The Carbon War.

“The talks were to be housed in a palatial red-brick conference centre within musket range of the civil-war battlefield at Manassas.”

It was February but the mercury topped 70F (21C). Delegates felt something was in the air, although not everyone was pleased with the remote location.

“It was a ghastly place, chosen to keep the NGOs away,” remembers Philippe Sands QC, then a young lawyer on St Lucia’s delegation.

Best known now for his work on human rights and environmental cases, Sands was then part of a small team helping small island states craft plans for a tough UN deal to arrest global warming.

Even at this relatively early stage of climate awareness, it was already clear to many Pacific and Caribbean leaders that projected rising sea levels would have huge impacts on their citizens.

“We saw ourselves as weak versus strong,” says James Cameron, now chair of the Overseas Development Institute but then fresh out of studying law at Cambridge.

“There was a strong conviction that there should be a separation between those who caused the problem and those least able to cope. There was a moral clarity and very little room for doubt.”

Island leadership

Cameron sat on the delegation of Vanuatu, after convincing the prime minister of the tiny Pacific Island that this was a fight that needed to be joined.

Alongside him was the equally fresh faced Jake Werksman. Now a lead climate advisor to the European Commission, the UK/US national had just graduated from Michigan Law School.

“I was in my mid-20s… it was a blast – working at the UN and feeling like I was doing the right thing,” he says.

“I was taking the microphone in negotiations and I was just out of law school. It was fantastic, thrilling.”

Independent from Britain since 1980, Vanuatu was the seed from which the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) was born.

The influential group of climate vulnerable nations – 31 strong – was first chaired by US human rights lawyer Robert Van Lierop, then Vanuatu’s ambassador.

And it was from their desk at the UN talks – located near the USA – that the first textual proposal for a UN climate body was presented.

A “precautionary principle” held that conclusive scientific proof was not necessary for countries to take steps to attack the causes of environmental degradation.

A “polluter pays principle” boldly stated those responsible for causing damage should fix the mess, regardless of whether they were a developed or developing country.

States had “an obligation” to protect the climate, it said. Fossil fuel subsidies must be stopped. Activities within national borders must not cause damage to other states, it added.

“I had spent a long time going through all the treaties… what we did was based on things that had come before,” says Sands, who helped write the proposal.

“Governments are incredibly conservative. There’s no chance of it going into text if it has not been done before.”

White House fears

Major oil producers were not at all happy with what they correctly perceived was a carefully planned attack on their economic well-being.

Nor was the US delegation, wary of being dragged into making politically toxic commitments. One of its team was a young lawyer named Sue Biniaz, who arrived fresh from negotiating a space treaty.

Now the State Department’s top climate lawyer and a highly respected negotiator, Biniaz recalls the issue was “rather obscure” in the early 1990s.

“At the time in terms of an international agreement most people would not have known what was going on,” she says.

Through negotiations in 1991, Biniaz and the US proved a formidable obstacle to the AOSIS delegation and a growing band of allies that included the EU, Canada and Australia.

Many in the State Department regarded the climate talks as a new front in the push by developing countries to secure more aid.

Foggy Bottom’s position, top negotiator Bob Reinstein recalled, was “no on targets, no on money, and we’re going to come back to you on technology.”

“Sue was our opponent – she was very sceptical,” says Cameron, laughing. “I think she thought we were dangerous radicals wearing suits. The US government were not best pleased.

“She had to deal with White House chief of staff John H Sununu, who was a radical anti-environmentalist. He thought it was a left-wing conspiracy. That these greens had to be shot.”

Sands adds: “She was a ferocious negotiator, but very smart and very good to engage with.”

The idea of two English nationals and a Frenchman representing small island states was “unusual” recalls Biniaz, who admits she was impressed with what this tiny team had achieved in such a short space of time.

Report: Exxon Mobil faces legal inquiry on climate misinformation

Growing tensions emanated from inside and outside the negotiating chamber. Few failed to notice the growing armies of oil and coal industry lobbyists facing off green groups.

“People started to whisper our ears – we can register you under the alien attorneys act,” says Cameron. “The coal lobby were vicious. I can see the guy who used to represent them.”

The man in question was JR Spradley, a Washington lawyer famed for a 10-gallon hat, tassled loafers and sharp suits, according to the Washington Post.

Brian Flannery, best known for his work with Exxon, was another who made the climate conferences his home, orchestrating an oil lobby group called the Global Climate Coalition.

Thanks to Inside Climate News, we now know Exxon had been aware of the greenhouse gas effect in the 1980s, but had worked the White House hard to rubbish the science.

“It was blatant and well-organised… there was no shame associated with it and it was quite above board,” says Werksman, chuckling as he recalls the pressure placed on delegates in 1991.

“There was a group called the Global Climate Coalition. A lobbyist called Don Pearlman approached delegates – he was a cigar chomping oil company funded lobbyist. There was no hiding it.”

Smoking guns

Another diplomat in Chantilly remembers Pearlman as a “first-class lobbyist… on the wrong side.  He always stood at the entrance, watching everybody coming in and intercepting them at will.

“He worked hand-in-glove with the clever Saudi blockers – [Mohammed] Al-Sabban in the lead.”

With no email or phones – and despite the haze from the smokers who were still allowed to puff away during deliberations – it was clear who was being tapped up at the talks.

“The thing I remember is that to communicate with countries NGOs would have to come and pass notes. You could not email or text,” says Werksman.

“This made the relationship between NGOs and delegations more transparent. It also led to a rule NGOs could not come onto the floor during debates.”

Standing at the back of the negotiating chamber, Cameron says he watched big coal and oil working with Arab states and the US to slow progress.

Lobbyists shuffled between the two and before long a Middle Eastern diplomat said something “outrageous”, often at the bidding of Washington, he says with a chuckle.

Street barbers, from the Uygur ethnic group, at work in the Kashgar bazaar in Xinjiang, China - 1991 (Pic: UN Photos)

Street barbers, from the Uygur ethnic group, at work in the Kashgar bazaar in Xinjiang, China – 1991 (Pic: UN Photos)

What’s often forgotten is how different a world the early 1990s were, observes Werksman, who went on to work for the UN Development Programme, Rockefeller Foundation and World Resources Institute before landing at the European Commission.

“Developing countries were desperately poor. Considering where China and India were in the 1990s – no-one would consider they would be treated equal to developed countries.”

Biniaz says: “I don’t think in 1992 we imagined India and China would grow at the pace they did but we did not preclude that possibility.”

A veteran professor who was China’s lead diplomat would harangue other countries for suggesting Beijing should make any compromises in a new pact.

In 1991 China’s per capita GDP was $314, India’s $375. Their development over the last 25 years has been meteoric, but these were countries with vast populations on the poverty line.

“All the professor would go on about is how crazy the rich would ask China to do anything. He reminded us when he grew up in Shanghai there were signs saying ‘no dogs and no Chinese’,” says Werksman.

“The professor would proclaim ‘China will always be a developing country’,” recalls another diplomat present.

Few guessed that by 2015 China would be the world’s top carbon polluter, with India’s emissions growing fast. It was seen in 1991 as a problem purely for the West to fix.

Poverty resonated as an argument and it’s what led to the UN’s ‘annexes’, or division between those classed as developing and those developed.

Tough choices

By June 1991, the talks were poised delicately, with vice chairs Raul Estrada-Oyuela and Ahmed Djoghlaf (the same man who chaired talks in Paris) struggling to keep a lid on tensions.

A 101-page compilation of proposals cites suggestions from Malta, Malaysia, China, Korea, Switzerland, India, Germany, the US and UK.

Few saw the process as simply a question of pollution. Brazil and Mexico took a view before the talks started that it was also “a question of modes of consumption” said Michael Zammit Cutajar, who was handed the role of setting up and running the UN’s new climate body in 1991.

Attitudes were evolving, but as at every climate summit since, the most contentious issue was who did what, and when.

“The hard bits were the emission reductions and how much money [was on offer] and on what terms? Those kept us busy to the very end,” says Werksman.

“What we had was a very vague commitment for developed countries to stabilise emissions by 2000 and then to report on it.”

“The Bush administration was opposed to legally binding targets and a lot of the other including AOSIS and EU supported binding targets. That was pretty intense and emotional,” says Biniaz.

“They were jealous of us because we were energy rich and they were energy poor, and they wanted to hobble us in the same way,” says a rather more bullish Reinstein.

The strength of the compliance regime was another “major area of dispute between me and them,” Biniaz recalls, resulting in a “light form of dispute settlement”.

As in future conferences, clever wording on emission targets agreed between the US and EU allowed different interpretations of the same agreement.

Countries were urged to “where appropriate” implement, publish and formulate “regional programmes containing measures to mitigate climate change by addressing anthropogenic emissions by sources.”

Rich nations agreed they would take the lead, aiming ambitiously to stabilise carbon pollution by 2000.

Those with a sharper eye for detail have noted there’s an uncanny similarity between the emissions cuts formula eventually agreed in 1992 and that put forward in 2015.

Both stipulate a legally binding pledge to make carbon cutting efforts and set out a long term target. Both appear in Article 4.2 of their respective agreements.

It was enough to satisfy everyone’s honour, notes Werksman wryly. “It is incredibly imprecisely worded – it’s non-binding as character.

“When the US submitted it to the Senate, it basically said this agreement is mostly about transparency and reporting.”

Analysis: What chance of zero carbon emissions by 2050?

Still, as all four of the lawyers Climate Home spoke to note, this initial treaty, known as the Framework Convention on Climate Change, was simply the start of a longer process.

Its most enduring legacy is Article 3, argues Werksman, a set of five principles that have guided how countries should tackle climate change ever since.

It was a “contentious” set of paragraphs to negotiate, says Biniaz, full of political notions that would bookend future agreements.

These include the idea that there were “common but differentiated responsibilities” based on development trajectories, and that the rich should take the lead.

Of some of Vanuatu’s key demands, the “polluter pays” principle did not survive the cut, but countries were urged to “promote” the right to sustainable development.

Those early principles and the debate over who should lead still resonate today, underpinning the Paris Agreement of December 2015.

Early breakthrough

On 9 May 1992 the package was agreed after a concluding set of talks in New York. UN historians relate this was to universal approval – those present have a different recollection.

“At the end of the negotiations the chair Jean Ripert asked if anyone had any objections. All OPEC states put their hands up,” says Sands. Malaysia was another to raise its placard.

Undeterred, the veteran French politician gave a cursory glance around the room, and apparently missing the objections, brought his gavel down to signify the end.

Few applauding realised the sharp rise in emissions from emerging economies would make tackling climate change that bit harder, challenging the assumptions of 1991.

None knew it would be a quarter of a century before all the top polluters could agree on a formula to stabilise global carbon pollution.

“I think I would have been angry if someone had said that… I would have thought that can’t happen – that’s wrong. And we still haven’t cracked it,” says Cameron.

But the work on the FCCC set in train a series of precedents that persist to this day, and in many ways noted earlier is a remarkably similar document to the one agreed last December.

Those early negotiations also bore witness to the rise of the most vulnerable, whose voice has become steadily more influential as the impacts of climate change become clear.

“That’s the first time the voice of the islands was heard,” notes Werksman, who saw close up the power of Pacific leaders when negotiating for the EU at last year’s Paris talks.

Representatives from the most vulnerable have enjoyed high profiles at the UN climate talks, from Vanuatu’s Robert Van Lierop in 1991 to the Maldives’ Mohamed Nasheed in 2009 and the statesmanlike Marshall Islands’ Tony de Brum in 2015.

And 25 years on states evidently believe there is a place for environmental governance – albeit at a level where nation states still determine what rules they will implement, how and when.

“There was no subject called international environmental law – there is now,” says Sands, recognised as one of the world’s top international law barristers in the 2015 Legal 500 ratings.

“There has been a change in legal consciousness. I think we can feel reasonably optimistic.”

Read more on: Climate Politics | EU | Pacific | UN climate talks | US