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Steven Heywood - August 2012 journal letter

Related pages: Journal Letters

QUNO, Geneva

Dear Friends,

It feels as though an extraordinary amount of time has passed since I last wrote a Journal Letter for you - apparently it has been only five months. I am in the difficult position, then, of needing to describe the work of those past months, and to reflect upon my time at QUNO (I leave at the end of October), all in less than a thousand words!

The programme I work on, Human Impacts of Climate Change, has made steady progress since my last letter. We have been focusing primarily, though not exclusively, on two strands of work: the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) negotiations, and the complex relationships between climate change, conflict and cooperation. To begin with the latter, I am currently putting the finishing touches to a publication which will be released before the end of the year. This report looks at possible responses to water scarcity caused by climate change, but I think its real importance is in looking at the discourses that influence much of the thinking on this issue.

In recent years we have seen an increasing popular narrative that climate change and water scarcity pose a threat to global security, and will encourage more conflict between nations and people. Some have argued that this narrative has been useful in capturing the attention of states and encouraging them to address climate change; but at QUNO we are worried about the potential military outcomes of such a discourse and the possibility that it may become a self-fulfilling prophecy – with states competing ferociously for resources precisely because they believe others will do the same. We call for climate change to be addressed with an emphasis on the possibilities for cooperation, rather than through empowering and further entrenching military and security-based mindsets that have served us so badly in the past. I could write much more, but then you would have no motivation to read the report...

In the climate negotiations, I attended the Bonn intersessional in May with my colleagues, Jonathan and Oliver, and saw first hand the problems that we face in finding an agreement. These intersessionals are supposed to discuss in detail the decisions that will be formally adopted at the next Conference of the Parties (COP18) in Qatar in December. However, discussions on the Durban Platform, the agreement which will replace the Kyoto Protocol sometime in the next decade, were bogged down in formalities, and ended up only adopting an agenda and a chair after a week of negotiations. It is vital that the Durban Platform blossoms into the strong and equitable agreement that the world needs; and it is equally important that this entails a thorough interrogation of what we mean by 'strong' and 'equitable' – but in the current climate of negotiations, this seems a long way from happening. There are positive signs, however, including a recent meeting in Geneva of the Green Climate Fund (the body that will hopefully be dispersing as much as $100bn towards climate change mitigation and adaptation projects), which, although at an early stage of discussions, made some decent progress.

Our own work on the climate negotiations remains at a stage of planning, consideration and questioning for now, but we remain quietly confident that there can be a role for our method of quiet diplomacy and fostering dialogue in helping parties to identify the particular elements of the talks where they can break through the current impasse.

Looking back on the whole of my work at QUNO, as I approach the end of my year-long contract, I have mixed opinions. I feel that QUNO's work on climate change has moved forward considerably in the last year, and that we are beginning to become better-known in UN circles that deal with these issues. I am confident that this will give us a chance in the next year to show that our methods can be useful in encouraging cooperation and dialogue between actors. However, I have often found the UN to be made up of rather difficult, opaque institutions with a focus on formality and conventions, and rather too much of a predilection for policy jargon. As someone with more experience of trying to communicate the key issues of sustainability in a clear and accessible manner, that has sometimes been difficult for me. Nevertheless, I hope to leave the Human Impacts of Climate Change programme in good stead for the next year and further ahead, and wish our new Programme Assistant, Ellie Roberts, the best of luck in continuing to work on the relationship between climate change and conflict.

On a personal level, I have been thoroughly enjoying the summer in Geneva, which has been a total transformation from the rather grey and frigid winter months. The weather has been consistently glorious (sorry for those of you reading this from the UK), with all manner of festivals and outdoor events taking place and a real party atmosphere around the lake. I have also been taking the opportunity to go on a number of hikes in the hills around the Lake Geneva region, and most recently went walking in the Bernese Alps for a few days – an experience I highly recommend to anyone, despite its somewhat exhausting nature, as the mountains really are stunning. I will be sad to be leaving in a couple of months (though less sad to escape the harsh Genevan winter), but will have fond memories of my time in Switzerland and hope to be back some time in the future.

Steven Heywood

August 2012