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Global Ideas

Backwards from Berlin to Warsaw

Over the course of 18 years many things have changed at the UN climate talks: Politics and science have parted company. Europe's position has become muddled. And hope drains away as politicians drag their feet.

Through the fog of the Warsaw climate talks this week, it is hard to believe that 18 years have passed since delegates at the first conference of the parties in Berlin in 1995 displayed such optimism and belief that by joint action they could avoid the worst effects of global warming.

There were grand speeches by politicians, like Dr Helmut Kohl, the German Chancellor, and many hours of hard negotiations with a recognition that the only way forward was for the rich developed nations to accept legally binding obligations to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

COP-leader Angela Merkel: From organizer to chancellor

To many developing nations, climate change was still a distant threat and very little to do with them. Their priority was economic growth and a reduction in poverty. The health of their environment could wait.

The chairwoman of the COP was Germany’s new environment minister, an unknown woman from the East called Angela Merkel, who many believed would not be up to the job of controlling delegates of 160 nations present. How wrong they were. She steered the COP to consensus and the foundation stones of the Kyoto Protocol were laid.

Portrait of Angela Merkel in 1995 (Photo: picture alliance)

Chairwoman of the 1995 COP: Angela Merkel was back then an unknown new German environment minister; today she’s chancellor of Germany

At the time, the speed at which the Protocol was negotiated and signed seemed slow. When, after two years of hard work by civil servants, the politicians arrived in Kyoto in 1997, there were dramatic scenes as politicians made last minute deals. They worked through the night to come up with legally binding targets and an agreement was reached. It seemed a small step but everyone believed only the first step on a journey that would save the planet.

Heroes and villains

Then as now, there were countries that were seen as blocking progress and others were progressive. The European Union was seen as a leader, seeing tackling climate change as a business opportunity as well as a necessity for the health of the planet. The United States was a villain, keen to protect its profligate lifestyle and fossil fuel industry at any cost.

Even in Berlin, the United States was under pressure. Head of the negotiations there was Timothy Wirth, the US undersecretary state for global affairs. He said with three days of negotiations to go: "The US government is not going to commit itself to things it cannot do. We will be fortunate if we can keep this treaty alive. I suspect if we do, we will still be talking about climate change in the years 2000, 2010 and 2020."

In Europe, national interests undermine common position

In Warsaw in 2013, his government’s attitude has hardly changed. Presidents may come and go, and even be willing to act, but they still cannot get the necessary legislation through Congress. The world’s richest nation is still a big stumbling block to progress.

The European Union, on the other hand, has changed drastically since the early conferences, more than doubling in size, making the politics far more complex. The new eastern European members often block the more progressive policies of original western partners. During the first week, the Polish hosts were under fire for apparently putting their coal industry above the interests of the climate.

Science and politics have parted company

But as the science has become more certain and the effects of climate change more obvious, some things have changed for the better. The developing countries are no longer bent on economic progress at any price. China, particularly, is alarmed by the obvious effects on its own climate already evident in storms and droughts. The link between pollution, health and climate change is clear both to the Chinese politburo and the people.

The least developed countries, fearful of the damage a wilder climate will do to their fragile economies and people, are increasingly desperate for help from the rich world. There is less talk of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and much more discussion of adaptation and compensation for the ravages of climate change.

In 1997, the science and the politics seemed in step, political action was keeping up with the scientific warnings. Since the turn of the century, the two have parted company, the politicians have dragged their feet so badly, hope is draining away. And, as the talks get ever more complex and inconclusive, the solutions seem ever more distant.

Paul Brown has attended all COP climate conferences since their start in 1995. He is an environmental journalist and former environment editor for the Guardian. As a mentor he has accompanied a group of of young journalists from around the world to the COP19 conference in Warsaw, as part of Deutsche Welle Akademie's workshop "Reporting on Climate Change" .