Tuesday of the second week is when the big guns come to town. The ground having been prepared for them by their officials, the Presidents, Prime Ministers and Ministers arrive to strut their stuff. Entourages sweep rapidly by the onlookers into various rooms as the multiple strands of the COP20 begin to either knit together or unravel in disharmony. It is too early yet to say which will be the fate of COP20 but certainly the commencement of the “High Level Ministerial Events” is also designed to inject urgency into the proceedings.

Urgency has been the watchword of the UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon for many years and again he reiterated the need for decisive action today. He recalled the massive global demonstrations surrounding the September summit in New York and how all sectors of society, public, private and civil, needed to be intimately involved in addressing the problem. The platform party he was part of today though was heavily weighted in favour of the developing countries and the flavour therefore was quite different from the polite backslapping which sometimes characterises the commencement of the high level phase.

As was the case in other COPs, the star of the show today was once again President Evo Morales from neighbouring Bolivia. Now in his third term, this first President of Bolivia to emerge from the indigenous population, Evo has always been a fiery and compelling orator and his speech today did not disappoint. Climate change, he argued, is a consequence of a brutal capitalistic system based on wealth concentration for the few at the expense of poverty for the masses. The endless quest for free trade areas and what he termed the ‘simulation’ of national climate agreements, he argued, would not solve a more deep rooted problem whereby people and ‘Mother Earth’ become commodities to be sacrificed on the altar of profit. The resonance with the Inca goddess Pachamama was clear. Although perceived as being a benevolent deity to the indigenous people of the Andes, Pachamama is also seen by them as nature itself. Problems arise when people take too much from nature because they are taking too much from Pachamama.

To Evo, the policy of war, based on greed for resources, further fuels climate change. A mere 20% of the defence budgets of the top five countries, he claimed, would suffice to solve 50% of the global climate change problem. Instead the machinery of death, as he called it, also kills the planet. A reorganisation of society based on meeting community needs rather than profit generation was the only way to stop the destruction of Mother Earth he argued. Pending this, an International Tribunal for Climate justice should be established. Whether or not you agreed with him, there was no denying the quality and sincerity of the person and the depth of his interpretation of the complexity of the ‘wicked’ problem of climate change.

Two other speakers from the Alliance of Small Island States also made telling speeches. The President of Nauru expressed the fact that adaptation to climate change was no longer possible in some instances, a theme further developed by the Prime Minister of Tuvalu. In a moving speech he asked the question “What would you do if you were in my shoes as the leader of a country whose culture and people faced extinction?” While the national delegates listened politely, I wonder if they had the same sentiments as one negotiator I talked to recently who informed me that science and ethics did not matter; all that mattered was their brief to protect their own national interest. One of the quotes from the Prime Minister of Tuvalu though sticks in my head. Adapted from Dante’s Inferno (how appropriate!) it is that “The darkest places in Hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality at times of moral crisis.”

The scene having been set, the Ministerial slots of 7 minutes per country now commence over the next 2 days. Mostly this is a recitation of what good things each country can boast about. The cumulative effect however is that global emissions continue to rise even faster that the IPCC worst case scenario. The increased effort called for by Ban Ki Moon is not yet in evidence. Certainly the short presentation by the new EU Commissioner for Climate Action and Energy, Miguel Cañete, did not lift the spirits very much. Tomorrow we await John Kerry and also the contribution of Ireland’s Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Alex White. In both cases, actions are hoped for that confirm that the time for protecting national interests at the expense of the global community is over. Otherwise perhaps the reach of Pachamama may extend adversely beyond the Andes, even to the next generation of Ireland’s children.

Prof. John Sweeney, Lima, 10th December 2014