Climate leaders face “Custer’s last stand” as UN talks approach

Next three years are crucial in determining the shape of climate action, say policy experts at two day Chatham House conference

Expert likens climate negotiations to doomed US battle at Chatham House conference

Expert likens climate negotiations to doomed US battle at Chatham House conference

By Sophie Yeo

Attempts to sign off a global climate deal are like “Custer’s last stand”, claimed an expert at the beginning of two days of discussions at Chatham House this week.

Leading voices on climate policy from around the world gathered at the London-based think tank to discuss the climate negotiations that are to take place in Warsaw this November, ultimately leading to a binding agreement in Paris in 2015.

The conference was held under Chatham House Rule, which prevents quotes from being directly attributed to speakers to allow frank conversation to take place, though the list of speakers is available online.

Likening the upcoming discussions to the famous standoff between the US cavalry and Native American tribes at the Battle of Little Bighorn, one speaker said if climate chaos is to be avoided then the world is going to “have to run.”

Unless we act by 2020, the chance of keeping world temperatures beneath 2C will be gone, said the speaker, unless the world is willing to invest as the UK and the US did in wartime – something that is neither “likely nor desirable”.

At the meeting, leaders discussed how such a challenge could be met, and what action would have to be taken both within the framework of the UN and outside.


Many spoke with optimism about the wide range of opportunities that are available to ensure that global efforts to reduce emissions are a success. Carbon pricing received support as an effective measure for curbing climate change, but this was accompanied by discussions of a more systemic shift across society.

A common theme was that adopting an alternative angle to climate change, such as one that focuses on human health or food security, could be useful in driving action, even if not explicitly aimed at reducing emissions.

One speaker pointed out that focusing on production methods of food was not enough, and that greater efficiency could come about through changing the diet of the developed world.

Others highlighted the fact that climate action in China has been driven by concerns over air quality and public health, rather than gradually rising temperatures.

Speaking at the sidelines of the conference, Nick Mabey from environmental think tank E3G, told RTCC: “This has been a much more productive conversation that talking about tonnes of carbon – how do we reflect that in the international regime? I think this is quite a big change because it’s rooted in real world activity and real world investment experience over the last few years.”

Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, acknowledged the need for such schemes to “weave into tapestry of international action”.

Taking on this sideways approach in the arena of international negotiations appeared to have the support of the US, whose input is expected to prove crucial to the success of the talks.

Speaking at the event, US climate envoy Todd Stern focused on the need for change to be driven through a new system of norms and expectations, rather than rigid rules and penalties, highlighting the need for “inclusive, real world ambition”.


It is unclear whether this will be enough to launch the level of ambition needed – one that was very explicitly set out by the IPCC in September, with the publication of a carbon budget. Speaking to journalists at the sidelines of the event, UN climate chief Christiana Figures added that, politically, the carbon budget is going to be “very, very difficult to sell”.

But channelled into this was a common theme that discussions had moved beyond the simple dichotomy of whether the eventual climate deal would be one that was imposed from the top-down, with the UN asserting explicit goals to which each country must adhere, or from the bottom-up, where an agreement is formed through pledges made by individual member states.

“I think the bottom-up top-down thing is dead,” E3G’s Mabey told RTCC.

“People have realised the bottom-up has to add up to the top-down. There are a lot of arguments about how you sequence and manage that tension, but everybody realises you need a combination of both.

“You can’t force people to transform their economy, but people need to transform their economy fast enough to manage climate risk.”

Turning point

Mabey added that the final outcome would be instrumental to cementing people’s faith in the system itself.

He said: “No one thinks we’ll get a slam dunk 2C agreement in Paris, but we have to get one that’s near enough that we can ratchet it up. What we don’t want to do is get something that’s not perfect but good enough that we can work with, and people say it’s a failure and lose faith in the system.

“If we lose faith again I don’t think we’ll resurrect the international system. We have to manage that risk as well.”

And the risks are not small. Choking up with emotion at the end of her speech, Figueres highlighted that conversations needed to shift to show the urgency of climate change, and that the drafts drawn up by next year will be crucial in determining the futures of generations to come.

“Now is the time, and Warsaw needs to show that we have understood that now is the time,” she said.

General Custer and his forces were annihilated at the Battle of Little Bighorn. By the end of the conference, it looked as though the next three years could be decisive in deciding whether UN negotiations – and the planet – will go the same way.

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