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Veteran Negotiator Declares UN Climate Process a ‘Co-opted Charade’, Paralysed by ‘Groupthink’

United Nations climate negotiations are paralysed by “groupthink” and won’t deliver the speed and depth of carbon reductions that will hold off the worst effects of climate change, writes veteran COP participant Kit Vaughan, in a recent post on the Lush Cosmetics website that calls for stepped-up citizen action in lieu of an incremental, fossil-dominated UN process.

“The UN climate talks have become a co-opted charade, lacking political will, governed by self-interested groupthink and leading to fake news, false truths, that stifle real, urgent solutions,” Vaughan contends. “The outcomes of the recent UNFCCC climate talks in Katowice, Poland have, once again, been heralded by the UN as a successful step to avert the climate crisis. But analysed through the lens of necessary scientific urgency (as opposed to political ambition), it is starkly clear that the talks are failing and that there is a massive schism between the fiction of the UN talks and the reality required to avert climate catastrophe.”

In an interview with The Energy Mix, Vaughan added that “we are in a different ballgame. We’re in a different time frame. We’re in a different everything. The system is crashing, and that means you need a radically different way of achieving change.” Which means that “a lot of people in the community need to have more conversations about what’s working and what’s not working,” and advocacy organizations can best intervene after assuming for a very long time that the COP process was working, or could be made to work.

In his Lush post, Vaughan credits many of the legions of people working within the UN process with good intentions. But after 11 years attending the annual Conference of the Parties (COP) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, he’s come to the “radical but honest conclusion” that the process “is, frankly, totally broken. After much deliberation, I have realized that my participation and engagement in the climate talks is in itself an act of co-option and makes me complicit in the greenwashing of the talks as a solution to the climate crisis.”

He adds that, “with time for planetary survival running out, we require a new form of honesty, one that allows the world to know that the talks are in crisis and not a part of the solution but now a part of the problem. By legitimizing a charade of groupthink on a massive scale, they are fuelling hope for a process that is deeply broken and that gives governments and citizens false hope, instead of empowering citizens and governments to take urgent and immediate action.”

He accuses international non-government organizations of “watering down press releases and campaigns to meet fundraising targets and ensure their political relevance is not compromised,” while fossil and coal lobbyists remain “actively engaged and advocating their interests in the talks,” akin to “pyromaniacs fuelling the fire and talking to the fire brigade whilst the planet burns. For evidence of this, look no further than the fact that the Katowice COP was held in Poland for the third time in 10 years, in a country addicted to coal and ready to push its coal agenda to such an extent handing out coal gifts to the UN participants.” He noted that Polish president Andrzej Duda opened the conference by asserting that investing in coal is not at odds with climate protection.

“The big red herring has been the role of business and industry, who continually say they’re leading on this,” Vaughan told The Mix. “The big business groups present themselves as green and paint themselves as honest. They’re not. And they’re moving at a pace that is still not sufficient to create the changes needed in the time that’s available.” The resulting international climate regime leaves a neo-liberal, free market economy, free of heavy regulation or taxation, with “massive loopholes” that permit countries like the UK and Canada to paint themselves as climate leaders while still massively subsidizing fossil fuels.

The hope and the momentum for change will come from communities that are “sick of the outcome, they’re sick of pollution,” he added. It’s a whole other question whether those communities can be empowered sufficiently to make a big enough difference. He pointed to the original gilets jaunes (Yellow Vest) protests in France as an instance of grassroots pushback against unequal incomes and outcomes. But as it stands, he said, the COP process “is so far removed from what’s on the political agendas of big nation states. Climate change isn’t high enough on their domestic agendas, and then they can get away with being badly behaved internationally.”

Until some of those nation states can be ostracized for failing to deliver on climate solutions, Vaughan said negotiators won’t take the action they know is needed on specific, urgent issues like the loss and damage the world’s most vulnerable countries will experience due to the unavoidable effects of climate change. “We can start to change the way we hold talks by no longer tolerating any fossil fuel lobbyists in the talks; kick them out and open up more space for transparency and civil society action,” he writes on the Lush site. “Stop the secrecy and open up talks to external scrutiny; strengthen the governance and get rid of twisted backroom deals behind closed doors. Clearly target—and hold accountable—those countries that fail to act responsibly with all manner of repercussions including trade sanctions, starting with the U.S. and OPEC countries. Only ever hold the talks in countries that are progressive leaders in climate action; make all commitments legally binding, regularly reviewed, and maintain penalties for not meeting hard and fast targets.”

This isn’t the first time Vaughan has fired a broadside at UN processes. In 2012, he said the negotiated text emerging from the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) had been “stripped of any ambition and substance”, with one UK senior negotiator admitting that “there is almost nothing left now for the heads of state to negotiate and it’s almost a done deal. But the real problem is this isn’t a deal that anyway near addresses what we need.”

A year later, he wrote a letter to his son from UN climate talks in Bonn. “Again in the negotiations, we heard small island developing countries, such as Barbados and Tuvalu, make impassioned pleas to big emitters to stop polluting and help secure a safer future for people who live in low-lying nations before their homes go underwater,” he said. “Given the seriousness of the problem that is upon us, I find it incomprehensible that those in positions of power are still failing to act with the urgency and leadership we so desperately need.”