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Home » Dr Saleemul Huq Interview | “Vulnerable countries left Glasgow with tears in their eyes!”

Dr Saleemul Huq Interview | “Vulnerable countries left Glasgow with tears in their eyes!”

Nick Breeze

Nick Breeze

Climate journalist and host of the ClimateGenn podcast.

In this episode, Dr Saleemul Huq declares COP26 “the most dishonest outcome that a COP presidency is responsible for. I hold the UK responsible for that dismal outcome.”

Nick Breeze: In the wake of Glasgow there are many different voices, some more positive and others decrying the lost opportunity to make progress on a range of issues. What is your own final assessment of COP26?

Saleem Huq: I’ll give you several reflections on COP26. The first one is the big picture of the ambition that everybody had going into it, including the COP26 Presidency, was completely belied by the outcome.

I’ll just give you one indicator of that. The vulnerable countries under the Climate Vulnerable Forum, which are 55 of the most vulnerable countries under the leadership of Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh, who was there in the first two days leaders session, asked for, in fact demanded, that the Glasgow outcome, should be called the ‘Glasgow Climate Emergency Pact’.

What we got in the end from the COP26 Presidency was the ‘Glasgow Climate Pact’. The word emergency disappeared both in terms of the word and the substance. The COP26 presidency did not recognise the sense of emergency, did not treat it as an emergency, they just treated it as incremental progress and now they are patting themselves on the back for making tiny little incremental steps forward.

They got the word ‘coal’ in and now they are congratulating themselves, after 30 years, of being able to mention the word coal. These are simply trivial outcomes that do not rise to the occasion that we are in a climate changed world.

Nick Breeze: It completely flies in the face of the science and also what the climate vulnerable countries are facing today.

Saleem Huq: Exactly, so I characterised COP26 going in as being the first COP in the era of loss and damage from climate change. It is already happening, everywhere! Even in the rich countries and they just simply did not rise to the occasion.

There was language put forward by the developing countries asking for a Glasgow facility on loss and damage that was in the penultimate text on Friday evening, which was the official time for finishing. Then it went into extra time on Saturday and that language disappeared. Language put forward by 5 billion people from 138 countries. 

It just disappeared because one country, the United States, didn’t want it and the COP26 presidency just bent to their demand.

Nick Breeze: So we have seen a lot of bluster, especially from the US, for example, as well as from the UK. Loss and damage is an interesting topic because it crosses our own perceptions of insurance and how we perceive our own safety in the face of these impacts. What is the pathway forward on loss and damage as you see it, as an expert?

Saleem Huq: Sure, so I have just expressed my disappointment with the official outcome from the negotiations which were, as I said, usurped by one country, the United States, not wanting to talk about what everyone else wanted to talk about, and that simply is not right. 

But something very interesting happened outside the UNFCCC, which was our other host in Scotland, namely the government in Scotland, headed by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, actually put on the table a million pounds initially and then doubled it to two million pounds to kickstart a loss and damage fund and she challenged other leaders to match it.

In the meantime, the province of Wallonia in Belgium has added a million euros and a number of foundations have added $5 million dollars. So we have a loss and damage fund going but it is outside of the UNFCCC and we hope we will build on that and we will attract others who are willing to put money into this issue, which in the UNFCCC we are getting nowhere with.

Nick Breeze: Okay, that is interesting because you are moving around the COP process. Do you think this agile approach might be something that accelerates?

Saleem Huq: I think so. I think the way forward is going to be coalitions of the willing. We actually saw this in the COP as well. There is a bunch of countries on forestry. There are a bunch of countries on coal phase-out. 

These are all coalitions of the willing that want to take things forward and I see the same thing happening on loss and damage because getting consensus amongst 196 countries is almost impossible nowadays. 

One country can veto it and as I said the language on loss and damage [was removed] because one very powerful country vetoes what everyone else wanted.

Nick Breeze: When you get this kind of response what does it do to the trust that either exists or is diminishing between the vulnerable countries and countries like the US or UK, for example?

Saleem Huq: The trust has been decimated! Just take the issue of money, for example, there was $100 billion promised by the rich countries. The promise started in Copenhagen 12 years ago by Hilary Clinton. It got reiterated 6 years ago in Paris by the rich countries and then 6 years later they come to Glasgow and they actually inserted language saying ‘we are very sorry, we can’t do it and you are not going to get it for another 3 years. You are not going to get it until 2023’.

That is the level of deception, I would call it, that these countries come forward with and expect to get away with, and actually do get away with, which completely destroys the trust.

The vulnerable countries left Glasgow with tears in their eyes. They had to swallow this kind of bullying from the rich countries and I can’t see how much longer they are going to do that.

Nick Breeze: And we have to be clear that these are the countries who are actually causing the damage and then taking the word emergency out of the final outcome.

For people who are engaged in the climate issue, and the number is rising as more people realise their own vulnerability, we see a yawning gap between where the politics is and where people are seeing that we really need to be – what is your view on how we bridge that gap?

Saleem Huq: I don’t see us as having to bridge the gap. I see us having to take actions. So that is the good side of the COP. I just described the bad COP, which is what happened inside the Blue Zone inside the negotiations but there was a very good COP that took place in Glasgow as well, outside the Blue Zone.

Tens of thousands of us from all over the world, indigenous people, young people, business people, academics like myself, we networked like crazy. We talked to each other, we talked about doing things together globally and there are networks of global actors all over the place taking actions every single day and that’s what is needed to tackle climate change.

This once-a-year meeting of leaders who don’t do anything is simply not fit for purpose anymore. It’s a good gathering. It is a good place for all of us to go and network but expecting the leaders to rise to the occasion? They have only done that once in Paris 6 years ago and they have failed to do it since!

Nick Breeze: This idea of different COP’s within the COP is one that has come up in other interviews and it seems to be one that is worth exploring because there is a sense of the Blue Zone losing agency to what is going on outside. There is also, I detected, a growing anger outside and there is this massive barrier of police to keep the people who passionately care, out of where the negotiations are taking place. 

What do you think of that transferral of agency and how it can be actually galvanised and used to a positive effect?

Saleem Huq: I personally feel that we do need to think out of the box in terms of getting the best results out of these annual gatherings. These gatherings have multiple purposes and multiple actors in them. 

We tend to focus, and the media tends to focus, almost exclusively on the government negotiations. To me, that is the wrong focus. The focus should be on people who are doing stuff. That is really where the rest of us need to be involved.

I am often asked ‘how was my COP?’ And I always answer ‘my personal COP is always great!’ because I spend the 2 weeks of the COP meeting old friends and making new friends and I have a great time. I am not a negotiator. I am not stuck behind closed-door negotiations that go into the night or all night sometimes. I don’t have to do that. 

I just stay on the outside and see what they are doing but I network and I meet lots of people and we talk about doing things, practical things, about dealing with the problem of climate change and not just talking about it.

Greta very succinctly, as she always does, characterised the negotiators as just doing blah blah blah, and they do. It is true. It is absolutely correct.

So we have these parallel tracks of leaders who are not doing enough. Some are, some aren’t but when they get together they can’t agree to take sufficient actions. Then there are those who want to take action. Let them all move forward with coalitions the willing, state actors and non-state actors because this is what we need. 

The problem is a daily problem. It is not a once-a-year problem and it is happening now. It is not something we need to anticipate anymore. The last 25 COP’s were about the future. COP26 is about now… and COP27 will be about now… and COP28 will be about now. These are no more about the future!

In a real sense, the discussion about 1.5ºC, although it is very important, is redundant. We need to be talking about the 1.1ºC that has already happened and is already causing impacts of climate change.

1.1ºC is the new 1.5ºC.

Nick Breeze: Absolutely and you just talked about how we respond to 1.1ºC and I think this is a very important point that comes back to what you just said about thinking outside the box. If we just move away from the COP for a second, if you go to your students in Dhaka in Bangladesh, what are they focussing on? What are the challenges that are on their agenda?

Saleem Huq: Absolutely, I characterise my annual programme, and I have been to these COP’s, all 26 of them over the decades, is that I spend 3 weeks at the COP.  I go a week early before it starts, I work with the Least Developed Countries negotiators planning the COP process, and the two weeks of the COP I stay there until the very end and I always stay extra time because it always goes into extra time. But that is not my day job!

I then go home and for the other 49 weeks a year I’m on the ground in Bangladesh and in other vulnerable countries, working with the most vulnerable communities and, I can tell you, they are not sitting idle. They are going ahead and working and learning how to adapt to the effects of climate change very very fast.

One of the new dimensions of the science of adaptation is that poor countries are often much better at it than rich countries are. So there is something that the rich can learn from the poor in terms of adapting to the impacts of climate change.

Just to give you an example, when the flash floods occurred in Germany, nearly 200 hundred Germans died. In Bangladesh, people don’t die from floods like that anymore. We evacuate. We have much bigger floods that cause much more damage but people don’t die from them. 

Nick Breeze: I think there is complacency. I am in Europe, and there is a big complacency about how big this problem is and how fast it is coming at us. It comes back to this 1.1ºC and understanding what 1.1 really means.

COP’s are just one annual milestone that are meant to guide us into the future. As we look forward to the next 12 months, what are the significant stepping stones that you see along the way that culminate before you get to the next COP?

Saleem Huq: Absolutely. There is something happening in every sphere and arena of action that is needed, all the way from mitigation actions, the Race To Zero initiatives that are taking place, to the resilience and adaptation end of the spectrum where I operate. 

I can tell you from my end of that spectrum things are happening a lot. We have been working on locally-led adaptation all over the world. I run a big international conference called Gabēṣaṇā, which is a Bengali word for research, of local actors together. The next one will be in February. 

There is also gatherings of community-based adaptation actors, something I have been involved in for the last decade and a half. Then there are many other such actions being done. There are the national adaptation plans being done under the aegis of the UNFCCC.

Many many things are happening on the ground which is actually very heartening. The problem is that although there is a lot of good stuff happening, it is not happening fast enough and it is not getting enough support to make it much bigger. 

This is where the global meetings come into play, to accelerate these actions and unfortunately, COP26 did not deliver acceleration. It delivered incremental progress. That is not good enough anymore.

Nick Breeze: No it is not! Although COP27 is not yet on the horizon it will be soon and it is going to take place in Egypt in Sharm El Sheikh. Is there anything interesting about that dynamic, anything interesting about that location?

Saleem Huq: I think so. So the Egyptians have already declared that as COP president they will regard it as an African COP. So the entire continent of Africa is very much involved in planning and setting the agenda. In fact, even beyond the Africans, they have said that it is a ‘vulnerable countries COP’. 

So even the non-African countries like mine, Bangladesh, will be able to contribute to setting the agenda and making sure our agenda items get prominence. I’ll give you a very good stark contrast. We demanded, going into COP26, that Loss and Damage be a major agenda item. 

The presidency refused, they did not allow it. As we saw in the end, they even succumbed to the pressure from the United States to get an incredibly dishonest outcome on the language on loss and damage. All they offered us was a dialogue. 

That is the most dishonest outcome that a COP presidency is responsible for. I hold the UK responsible for that dismal outcome. They just succumbed to pressure from the US and that is not what a presidency should do.

A COP presidency should look for uniting actions and not give one country a veto against a 138 other countries.

Nick Breeze: Yes, with the history of Britain, you would think they would be able to use some diplomatic skill and yet it just wasn’t there.

Saleem Huq: Exactly. Mister Boris Johnson didn’t even come back to Glasgow at the end. In Paris, the French president got involved in getting us the Paris Agreement. He rang up presidents and prime ministers around the world, including the King of Saudi Arabia, to get us the result in Paris. 

Mister Johnson did not put in any political capital at all. He came in the beginning, he had a big show and then he went away. He didn’t come back in the end. 

Nick Breeze: It is disgraceful. 

Thank you very much for speaking to me.


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