Jan Pronk

The Last Straw

The Hague, 13 February 2007


Seven years ago, in the last year of the previous Millennium, in this very city – The Hague – an important round took place in the world climate negotiations. It was the sixth Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, COP 6.  At the time I was the Minister for Environment of the Netherlands. Representing the host country I had the honour to preside over this session.  We had invited the then Dutch national poet Gerrit Komrij to write some poems about the state of the earth at the turn of the millennia. The result was a booklet with poems titled The Straw that Breaks the Camel’s Back …? which we presented to all participants at the talks. Komrij’s poems were about the earth, its people, its resources, inequalities and common interests, the challenge implied, the time left and the talking about all this. Komrij wrote about narrow escapes, but also about Armageddon.


The straw that breaks the camel’s back.


We had a beautiful movie made with the same title: The Straw that breaks the Camel’s Back ...? It depicted ‘the-MORE-of-everything-story’ that had started long ago and hadn’t stopped since. “From generation to generation. And what does it all add up to  ..?” That was the question asked in the picture and in the poems. It may add up to a break-down, the movie said, and the break-down may result from the last straw. It is not certain when the last straw will be laid on the camel’s back and it is not certain either who will do so. However, it is certain that there is a limit to what the camel can carry. It is also certain that, when the camel’s back breaks, it is not only the responsibility of the person who has added the last straw. No, the last straw is only the immediate cause. The real reason why the back breaks is the weight of the burden as a whole. Everybody having contributed straws before the last one was put on the camel’s back is responsible.


The movie asked a second question: What to do about that MORE culture that seems to result in a disastrous breakdown?  The answer quoted in the movie was hesitant and led to other questions:


… oh yes … discussions take place about it  … and meetings take place about it  … and then there are more discussions and more meetings … but is anyone really doing anything about it?
Because in the meantime …
OK … in the meantime … solutions, many solutions have been dreamt up. No shortage of solutions all right.
We can carry on with MORE … under certain conditions … but what are they?
More discussions, maybe?
Please … no more.  


This was the mood seven years ago: conference fatigue, rhetoric fatigue. Desperation crept in, not about climate change, but desperation about the discussions about climate change. People felt that these discussions were running around in circles, going on for ever, not producing any action. The discussions themselves seemed to be the straw that could break the camel’s back.


Al Gore, in his book, An Inconvenient Truth has depicted the state of mind resulting from denial, doubt and disinformation, deliberate disinformation. These three D’s are heavy straws. They have added to the burden by producing a fourth D: delay, the delay of action. Indeed, what should be done hasn’t been done. It was this delay, this total lack of action, which brought people into a state of despair as reflected in the narrative of the picture which I quoted a moment ago. No wonder that people got desperate.


Recent insights.


Today, two weeks after the publication of the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), it is hardly possible anymore to doubt whether the climate is changing or to deny that human activities are responsible for most of the warming of the earth since 1750 and in particular for a further increase in warming during the second half of the last century.


What exactly do we know? According to the IPCC during this century world temperature is expected to rise with 1.4 to 5.8 %, most likely with 4%.  This is bound to have consequences for food and agriculture, for human health and for the habitat, including the sheer possibility to live and work in certain areas.


I will refrain from mentioning other figures.  I expect that the experts following my opening address will go into detail, referring to figures, numbers and percentages. Let me only quote, in qualitative terms, some truths presented to us by the IPCC that no citizen and no politician can afford to disregard.  We now know for sure - I am quoting the IPCC report - that the warming of the climate system is unequivocal, as is now evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice, and rising global mean sea level.  We also know that, according to the IPCC, the observed increase in … temperature since the mid 20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in greenhouse gas concentrations. Five years ago the impact was considered likely, now very likely, reflecting an increase in the likelihood from above two-third to more than 90%. Policy makers better take this change in the adjective very serious: it is the common global wisdom of all experts concerned. The observed long term changes in climate include changes in Arctic temperature and ice, in precipitation patterns and amounts, in droughts and heat waves, in wind patterns and the intensity of cyclones, hurricanes and typhoons.  The overwhelming expert judgment is that it is likely to very likely that these trends occurred in the late 20th century. They conclude that the likelihood of a human contribution to these trends varies between more likely than not to likely. Finally the chance that all this will continue in the 21st century varies between likely and virtually certain.


Indeed, it is an unequivocal fact: burning of fossil fuels and human activity are driving climate change. We can no longer escape the truth: discernible human influence extends towards many aspects of climate change, including ocean warming, continental average temperatures as well as temperature extremes and wind patterns.


People nowadays are in particular concerned about one specific aspect of climate change: sea level rise. The IPCC is cautious, perhaps more cautious than many people had expected. In recent literature higher figures have mentioned about sea level rise than a rise with 18 to 59 cm in the coming century. Some very recent research has not yet been incorporated into the findings of the IPCC. Some foresee that the sea level rise will higher, for instance due to melting ice sheets. The IPCC itself has stated that there is high confidence that the rate of observed sea level rise increased from the 19th to the 20th century. There are many factors at play and not all of them are very well understood. Some may outweigh others. However, reading the IPCC report I can come to one conclusion only: sea level rise will continue for centuries; the main uncertainty is about its pace. So policy makers would be wise to assume that many low lying areas and many islands will be affected in an irreversible way. The question is not whether they will be affected, but when and at which speed. To pass the burden of mitigation, adjustment and protection on to the next generation would be wholly irresponsible, even though scientific insight is not yet complete. That is a matter of precaution.  


All this is not new, actually. As I said above: we are discussing this already for quite some time, even long enough to produce discussion fatigue. We have known the trend for years already. The only thing that is new is the broader consensus amongst all experts concerned, the greater likelihood of possible events and the increased awareness of the possible impact. The awareness of the need to exercise precaution is not new at all. On the contrary, to that extent promises have been made in unmistakable wordings.
Let us face it: fifteen years ago, already in 1992, at the Rio de Janeiro Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) the international community decided to deal with climate change. The World Climate Convention was established. In Rio a very wise and forward looking principle was agreed upon: the precautionary principle. Politicians, signing the UN Convention on Climate change, promised their citizens: “we will take precautionary measures to anticipate, prevent or minimize the causes of climate change and mitigate its adverse effects. Where there are threats of serious and irreversible damage, lack of full scientific proof should not be used as a reason for postponing such measures”. This was wise and forward looking indeed. Politicians made the promise: even if and when there is no full scientific proof, not hundred percent certainty, even if some scientific doubt is still legitimate, we as politicians commit ourselves and promise our citizens that we will not delay, that we will act, that we will not seek a pretext for postponement and non-action.


Kyoto, The Hague and Bonn


As a matter of fact: already five years later this awareness got its translation in the Kyoto Protocol. This protocol was an important step forward in comparison with the Climate Convention. It did imply an agreement according to international law; it was no longer based on voluntary action. It was binding. It was concrete: quantitative targets were agreed to reduce the emission of Greenhouse Gases. It was based on the principle of a common but diversified responsibility, in the spirit of truly multilateral cooperation. It included a pledge to poorer countries that they could develop themselves. The advanced countries agreed that new scientific insights into the environmental and climatic consequences of human and economic action would not be used to keep poorer countries at a distance or to stifle the possibilities of these nations to improve the life of their citizens. On the contrary, the promise was made to assist these countries with their economic development as well as in their efforts to fight poverty and in building up their capacity to deal with environmental pollution and climate change.  


The Kyoto Protocol was one of the best examples of the new spirit of international cooperation. It was sophisticated, concrete and just and fair. The burden of mitigation and adaptation would fall first on those countries that had contributed most to the emerging catastrophe, those who generation after generation had laid most straws on the camel’s back. In fact they promised to reduce that burden, so that others could put some additional straws on the camel’s back without risking a breakdown. The Kyoto Protocol reflected an awareness of common responsibility.


You know: it was not all that easy. The Kyoto Protocol was no more than a set of principles and objectives. In order to make it operational agreement had to be reached about the way in which the objectives would be achieved. Reaching agreement about an objective is not as difficult as settling a dispute about the instruments to be used in order to meet the objectives. The quantitative targets which had been agreed upon could easily be diluted by using specific instruments, more easily accessible to some than to others. So, difficult discussions took place about the absorptive capacity of sinks, which led to lengthy debates about the definition of a sink, the definition of a forest and even the definition of a tree. When is a tree a tree? Difficult discussions were held about whether a country should try to meet a target all by itself or whether it was allowed to do so by financing projects meant to enable other countries to decrease greenhouse gas emissions. The latter practice implied that richer countries would be able to continue their domestic lifestyle and only pay indulgence money. These countries would continue to load the camel, while helping others to make the straw lighter. Would countries also be allowed to trade amongst themselves, enabling some of them to load the camel beyond their agreed share and buy the right to do so from other countries, which then would add less straw to the burden? Many questions, all of them legitimate. Many answers too, all of them different. Many countries, all of them with their own interests, different as well. Each of them was more than willing to explain time and again why it was holding a specific position, how justified it was and how wrong the others were.   All this went on year after year, month after month, seminar after seminar, workshop after workshop, conference after conference. And during the conferences and negotiations themselves, day after day, hour after hour, night after night.


This explains the mood expressed in the narrative quoted above: More discussions, maybe? Please … no more. No wonder that conference fatigue was creeping in.


At the talks here in The Hague, in COP 6, we failed to reach a result Maybe Gerrit Komrij had foreseen this. One of the poems in the booklet The Straw that Breaks the Camel’s Back …?  carried the title In vain. I read it in the plenary session where we publicly admitted that we had failed:


In vain


He lost his way within a maze
In search of silver and of gold -
He searched a lifetime and he found
He was where he’d been from of old.


Indeed: we had talked and talked, searched and searched, run around in circles, lost our way and ended where we has started. In vain.


We were ashamed ourselves. But the people who initially had vested great hopes in these talks, how much they may have despaired, did not let us go away with it. We felt the pressure of the public: do not close the negotiations, but adjourn in order to resume these talks as soon as possible. Try again. Do not wait another year, until COP 7, do not loose the political momentum, but come back to the table soon. By responding to this plea we raised expectations. But at the same time we compelled ourselves to do better, to not allow ourselves to fail again.


As a matter of fact we were helped by the announcement made by President Bush that Kyoto was dead. By saying so he meant to kill the agreement, nullifying not only a possible outcome of ongoing talks, but also the principles and objectives that had been agreed before. The other members of the international community felt insulted. Their reaction was not: “unfortunately, now that the largest and most polluting country on earth has declared death, there is no way out anymore”. On the contrary, the general reaction was: “it is not up to you, Mr. President, to unilaterally pronounce a common endeavour dead. Either we come to such a conclusion together, or we try to keep it alive and save it. We will prove you that you were wrong. We will succeed in saving Kyoto”.


That is what we tried in Bonn, at COP 6-and-a-half. I had to chair this one too. We tried to use the time between COP 6 and COP 6 ½ as best as possible by bringing people together, by pushing for new creative ideas and by drafting compromise texts. In public statements I said that this was an opportunity not to be missed, but when I went to Bonn I was rather pessimistic.


I tried to counter my pessimism by drawing some lessons from the failure thus far and translating these into seven advises to the negotiators, which I spelled out in my opening address in Bonn:


First: Stay faithful to what you have agreed so far. Live up to all commitments made.


Second: Do not start all over again. Do not waste past efforts.


Third: Go forward, not backward. Please refrain from adding new obstacles. Remove existing obstacles. Refrain from the rituals. Do not stay ‘sur place’, but move.


Fourth: Stay together. However,


Fifth: If for some reason a country feels that it is not in a position to agree, let that not lead others to hold back for that reason only.


Sixth: If a country cannot agree, or not yet agree, it should not make it difficult for others to do otherwise. No power games, please, no blackmail.


Seventh: Do take each other’s interests into consideration. Do not antagonize, but draft an agreement which is open for all, now or later.


As a matter of fact, a miracle was wrought: we got near full consensus, though without the US, and we were able to adopt a final text, that only had to be transformed into a legal document, ready for ratification a little later. I remember how everybody rejoiced, including the toughest negotiators. They all felt: this is our common achievement, our common property; nobody can take this away anymore.


So, we had a positive experience. We learned: talking helps, if the talks are supported as well as challenged from outside. Once again we learned: togetherness helps. And: never give up.


The final result was not ideal. It has been criticised. It still is. However, the Kyoto Protocol is the best possible. In my view it is not even second best, but quite good in itself. Much of the criticism is unjustified. The Kyoto Protocol is in principle world wide. It is concrete, result oriented, with quantitative targets. It is ambitious, but feasible. It is broad and flexible. It combines different policies with regard to Greenhouse Gas emissions: mitigation, absorption and adjustment. It is not limited to regulations, but it is also market oriented and can function as an incentive towards technological innovation. It is fair towards economically and technologically less advanced countries. It contains binding obligations and sanctions on non-compliance and provisions against free riders. It takes different time horizons into consideration. All these characteristics make it a credible agreement, based on sustainability considerations.


So, it is a good agreement. Is it good enough? No; it is only a first step. Addressing climate change requires more: more ambitious targets, a broader participation in mitigation efforts.  But it does not require something completely different. Within the Kyoto Protocol approach there is room for many different policies and for a change in emphasis, if deemed necessary or desirable. We do not have to start anew. In Bonn we said about the Kyoto Protocol: it is the only game in town. This has been reconfirmed after ratification made the Protocol operational. But it is more than that: it is not so much the only one we have; it is the best we have, the best we could agree upon. And it is good.


I do not know whether I am able to convince you. I also do not know to which extent I am preaching to the converted. But the more I became involved in discussions and negotiations, the more I was confronted with alternatives and with criticism, the more I became convinced that it is not at all necessary to change course altogether. The focus and orientation of the Protocol are not the problem. Neither are the underlying principles and the targets. The problem is a lack of implementation. The problem is, also, a lack of political will to consider building on it, taking the next step, with more ambitious targets and a broader participation.  


The next step.


We can be quite disappointed by the present stage of affairs. The positive mood of COP 6 ½ in Bonn has faded away. Quite a few countries are not at all on track and will risk not meeting the agreed targets. In the present talks countries are again apportioning blame towards each other. Old arguments are being repeated, the same old doubts and hesitations, sometimes in a new cloak: bickering about the precise relation between adjustment and mitigation, a political hassle about capping and trading versus a technology push, or a quarrel between the proponents of old and new energy. 


Again, many of such questions are legitimate, just like the questions that were dominating the discussions ten years ago. But also just like then it seems to be discussion without action. The five D’s of that time - Denial, Doubt, Disinformation, Delay and Despair – seem to prevail once again. They also seem to have led to a sixth D: mutual Distrust.


So we seem to be back where we started, just like as described in Komrij’s poem: back where we have been from of old. As a matter of fact it is worse. The delay of action has produced the notion that it is too late, that taking action would no longer serve a purpose, that we cannot stop climate change anyway. This is the seventh D: Doom, not doom as a reality, but the preaching of doom.


How to address the seven D’s?


First, count your blessings. One of them is the existence of the IPCC itself. The IPCC is unique, a model of international cooperation without precedent, a well functioning miracle. It is the best example of a common endeavour of all scientist and experts, from all parts of the world, to share their insights with each other and to discuss them with an open mind, with a view to reach a common understanding and a consensus about what are likely causes and possible consequences.


The most recent report is very telling. It is honest. The panel does not shy away from correcting its own findings presented in a previous report, irrespective of whether these findings had to be corrected upward or downward. It is the best tool available for policymakers, impartial, reliable and credible.


There is more. Despite the seven D’s of today a new public spirit seems to emerge. In quite a few countries the public has been alerted again and is expressing environmental concerns more vocally. Maybe this is the result of a number of recent extreme weather conditions, like Katrina, the Asian Tsunami, the hot summers in Europe, less snow in the Alps, shorter raining seasons and longer dry seasons in Africa. Not all of these phenomena are climate related, but each of these forms an important reason to give greater emphasis to the precautionary principle in policy making. As a matter of fact, climate is getting a higher priority on the political agenda. Take for example this country, the Netherlands. None of the political parties made climate an issue in the campaign for the parliamentary elections in November last year.  However, this week, only three months later, it turned out that the new coalition government that emerged from these elections has given environmental issues a high priority in its common program. Amazingly, private business in the Netherlands, which only seven years ago tried to obstruct the implementation of a policy to implement the Kyoto Protocol, fearing that this would jeopardize its market position, even criticized the previous government for not paying enough attention to the environment. Maybe recent visits to the Netherlands by former President Clinton and former Vice President Gore did the trick. Maybe it was Al Gore’s film or his book. Maybe it was a general public concern about sea level rise. Maybe it was the Stern report, which argued that investments to protect the environment and to address climate change are good economics. Since the early seventies many economists, such as Herman Daly, had argued this many times, but they had not been taken seriously. However, presently there is a chance that in economic science and in economic policy making a new paradigm will prevail, based on the notion of sustainability and responsibility for the fate - and thus the costs and benefits - of future generations. All of a sudden the mood has changed. Climate risk management is becoming fashionable in World Bank programs and in the portfolios of insurance companies. There is a new opportunity to incorporate the precautionary principle in energy policies, spatial planning and international cooperation.


I foresee that a change in the attitude will not be confined to European nations, but will extend to the US as well. There are so many enlightened opinion leaders, ngo’s, business, experts, scientists and local leaders and politicians in the US that this country is bound to take a lead soon.


Will this last? In the longer run nobody knows whether the present mood will persist or again turn out to be hype. But it does present an opportunity. Don’t loose it. Grasp the momentum. Do not just wait and see, but act. This is a message in particular to concerned citizens, to the public: do not wait for politicians to act, but form your own political alliance.


Seven years ago I drew seven lessons from the talks in The Hague and presented them as seven advises to the negotiators in Bonn. Let me conclude by presenting seven advises to civil society.


First: address the seven D’s of Denial, Doubt, Disinformation, Delay, Despair, Distrust and Doom by seven C’s: Consistence (a persistent search for the truth); Conscientization (convincing others with facts); Consciousness of the needs of poor people in completely different circumstances; Cooperation (with all parties, including those who do not share all your views); Concrete action in order to counter delays; Commitment to the good cause of the earth and its people and, last but not least, Creativity, in order to counter feelings of doom.


Second: Do not let the politicians off the hook. Press them to keep their commitments, to be forward looking. Dispute the need for awareness building before political action can be taken.
You are already aware and many others with you. Stress the need to translate the existing public awareness into concrete action.


Third: Set an example yourselves. Show that civil society can do more than just talking and lobbying. Come with creative ideas and work them out.


Fourth: Press for a multilateral approach and for international cooperation. Set an example by establishing your own multilateral world, a network of regions, cities, business companies and ngo’s without borders.


Fifth: Despite the need for international cooperation, do not wait until an international agreement has been reached. Do not shy away from unilateral action in order to catalyze change.


Sixth: Don’t be dogmatic. Be flexible yourself. Accept that the best can be the enemy of the good. It is not always necessary to choose between different options. Adjustment and mitigation go together. Technology pushes do not have to compete with direct measures to cap emissions. The market can supplement public action and vice versa. 


Seventh: Do not get desperate. Do not get paralysed. Never give up.


Let me finally go back to the picture that was shown to the negotiators in The Hague, seven years ago. The narrative continued:


More discussions, may be?
Please … no more.


Let’s put it this way, just DO something. When? …TODAY.
Because … go on, admit it …. You really don’t want to saddle the next generation with OUR problems …
Or do you ….?


Seven years ago the slogan of COP 6 and 6 ½ in The Hague and Bonn was WORK IT OUT. It was an action oriented slogan. The logo that accompanied the action was seen all over the place. The slogan and logo of today’s campaign is “HERE: it starts here and here is everywhere”. Indeed, we can always start anew, Gerrit Komrij wrote in one of the other poems brought together in the booklet The Straw that Breaks the Camel’s Back …? This poem too was read in Bonn, at the end of the talks, as a sign of hope:


Eternal youth


The world can always start anew.
A fresh, rejuvenating spring
Is the awareness that this earth’s
The first and last to which we cling


Jan Pronk
Opening address International Climate Change and Vulnerability Conference,
Peace Palace
The Hague, the Netherlands

13 February 2007