Slow progress at Lima climate talks “costing lives” says Oxfam chief

INTERVIEW: Winnie Byanyima tells RTCC negotiators have detached human feelings from what is being discussed

Winnie Byanyima and former Ireland president Mary Robinson (Pic: Twitter)

Winnie Byanyima and former Ireland president Mary Robinson (Pic: Twitter)

By Megan Darby in Lima

“This slow progress is costing lives. It is not just the money they spend here and the carbon footprint flying round the world for meetings that don’t have solutions, it is lives are being lost.”

Winnie Byanyima is animated now. The head of Oxfam has run through her top lines at UN climate talks in Lima – climate finance, human rights, a strong global deal in Paris next year – and some frustration starts to show through.

We have been talking about the distance between the 20,000 people marching the streets of Lima to demand action and the suits inside the chamber.

“The people who are responsible for giving us the solutions are of one kind and are all old men who have lived their lives,” she says.

“Young people, poor people, indigenous people, workers of the world are poorly represented in that room. If they were there, we would have a different outcome.

“We want to keep reminding these negotiators: ‘This is not about you, this is about all the other people who are not here, who are already affected by climate change.’”

Terminal struggle

People like the woman leader Byanyima met from Honduras who broke down in tears as she described five friends killed in a struggle to protect their environment.

Or those losing their land to the droughts and floods that come round with increasing frequency as the planet hots up.

Negotiators do not meet such people, she says. “They go straight into the negotiating room and get out their calculators, asking how much it is going to cost.

“It is sterilised and I think it is intentional. You detach human feeling from what is being discussed and then you can be dog-headed.”

The negotiators have many issues to thrash out before countries can agree a global climate deal in Paris next year.

Yet in the first of two weeks, the only decision to be made was on the process, not the substance.

Increasing risks

A former UN development official, Byanyima has been to enough international negotiations to know even the most leisurely can pick up in time to deliver agreement.

“But I hope that negotiators here are not leaving everything to the last minute – that is a risky strategy.”

Arguments over who should bear the responsibility for climate change have stalled progress for decades.

Rich countries fear that shifting away from the fossil fuels their economies were built on will be costly.

Poor countries, feeling the effects of increased drought, flooding and storms, urge action but have little leverage.

The emerging economies in the middle do not want to let emissions limits curb their growing prosperity.

Meanwhile, the temperature keeps rising.

Increasingly, the idea of “green growth” is taking hold, that protecting the climate brings economic opportunities as well as costs.

Oxfam is keen to make sure the world’s poor are empowered by this shift, not further marginalised.

Climate cash

In particular, the charity is keeping a hawkish eye on climate finance.

Rich countries have stumped up US$10 billion for the Green Climate Fund, to help the world’s poor adapt to climate change and develop sustainably.

Australia was the last major economy to pledge, with US$163 million, after initially refusing to take part.

“Given that Australia has been a laggard in terms of its response to climate change, we welcome this contribution,” said Byanyima.

Now it must make its “fair share” of emissions cuts, she added.

The GCF money is some way off the US$100 billion a year they promised to mobilise by 2020 – and Oxfam is pushing for longer term commitments.

It found that on adaptation, developing countries are spending more of their scarce resources than they receive from the international community.

Projects like flood defences or drought-resistant crops are not as attractive to private investors as solar panels, so public funding is critical.

Embedding human rights in a climate deal is also a priority for Oxfam and the subject of a battle of attrition in the chamber.

Byanyima hopes negotiators can overcome reported objections by Saudi Arabia to references to “gender-responsiveness”, for example.

“Not only because women are more impacted by adverse weather patterns, by disasters, but also because women provide leadership at the community level. Not tapping into that potential is a huge loss for society.”

It was a demand for human rights and justice she took away from the people’s climate march.

“We want solutions now and not for later.”

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