“Everyone Wants an Agreement on Climate”: Q&A with Wael Hmaidan

Activists celebrate US President Barack Obama's decision to block the Keystone XL oil pipeline. Washington, DC, November 6, 2015. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

With less than two weeks left until Paris hosts landmark United Nations-brokered climate change talks, Wael Hmaidan, Director of the Climate Action Network, is confident the signs are pointing toward the formation of a legally binding agreement.

“We feel that the stars are aligning,” Mr. Hmaidan said, citing significant advances in renewable energy development and the fact that labor, youth, religious, and other movements had got behind the climate action campaign.

“We have clarity on what we want to achieve in Paris, so we’re not asking for an unrealistic agreement,” he told Global Observatory Assistant Editor James Bowen. “We know what we can achieve there and we know what elements we want, and all the good ones exist in the current text.”

Analysts are split on how last week’s Parisian terror attacks might affect that momentum. Some claim it will detract attention from the importance of striking a deal, while others contend it might foster greater international cooperation, particularly with the links that have increasingly been established between climate change and global insecurity.

Mr. Hmaidan said that financing for international development needed to be made climate-friendly, with all flows from institutions such as the World Bank channeled into low-carbon investments.

“Investing in infrastructure that does not take into consideration greenhouse gas emissions or carbon emissions does not make sense,” he said.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

The Climate Action Network unites close to a thousand climate-focused NGOs from around the world. As we head towards the Paris talks, what role have these organizations played in pressuring governments to take climate change seriously? I’m thinking of the campaign against the Keystone XL project, for example.

Our members include various kinds of organizations. We have international environmental organizations and pressure groups like Greenpeace, Avaaz, 350; developmental organizations; think tanks like WRI, WWF, and Christian Aid; and others. We have varied mandates and we work with governments and other civil society sectors in all kinds of ways.

One of the things we’ve done is work with governments to develop positions towards climate policy nationally, as well as for the international negotiations. We also work on mobilization on the ground, such as the People’s Climate March, and the campaigns on Keystone or shale investments in the Arctic. We’ve been successful in many of these. Of course, we also have failures, but for Paris we feel that we’ve been able to add to the momentum toward achieving a strong agreement.

From your experience working with and in a wide range of countries, what impression do you have of how developing and developed countries are respectively approaching the Paris talks? How does this compare with previous climate negotiations such as Copenhagen?

There’s definitely a huge difference in rhetoric. We’re not fully where we want to be, but we see more of a constructive dialogue. Everyone wants to achieve an agreement. Everyone wants to deal with this problem. They have concerns and positions, but the blame game is not being played as much as it was during the Copenhagen days, where there was just finger pointing and avoiding action. What we see now is collaboration.

There are different capacities and responsibilities, but the discussion is not poisonous at all, and there are initiatives being taken from both sides: developed and developing. There’s even some competition between developed and developing and who will be doing more. To give a simple example: the United States committed to 3 billion USD in climate finance for the coming five years, then China came out and said they were going to provide 3.1 billion USD. This kind of dynamic is very helpful. Countries should compete on who is the world leader and not over who pushed the most responsibility onto others.

Your network worked to ensure that a response to climate change figured in the actions outlined in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals agreed this year. Do you think the final product adequately achieved that goal, and can you give examples of where those two processes connect?

The sustainable development document is key for the climate change debate because climate change is usually perceived as an environmental issue, which is very harmful. The general public, especially in developing countries, looks at environmental issues as not being priorities, so they don’t have a full understanding of what climate change is and the ramifications of climate change on their daily lives.

What the 2030 agenda did is make climate change a developmental issue. It showed how it integrated with the different goals: how it affects food production, poverty, energy, and other issues. This will bring climate change closer to the public and show that it’s linked to their daily lives. The document clearly states that we cannot achieve any of our goals for sustainable development if we don’t really address climate change.

This is also very important for the UN climate process. One of the hindrances to climate action is seen to be the need for development, which is actually an artificial debate. The reality is that climate action can fasten development and usually the type of actions required under climate change are the cheapest and most economically feasible solutions for development.

You’ve said that multilateral support for investment in carbon-intensive industries needs to end. Can you elaborate on that, in terms of what is happening at the moment and what needs to change?

There is a big debate about climate finance and how much money we’re putting into climate action. It’s not actually about climate finance, but finance for development. Developmental institutions such as the World Bank need to be climate-friendly. Trillions of dollars are used in development work, even through national budgets in which countries build schools, roads, and other kinds of infrastructure. We are now in a time where we realize that climate change will reverse all these actions, so investing in infrastructure that does not take into consideration greenhouse gas emissions or carbon emissions does not make sense.

We’re not asking to increase climate finance. How it needs to be approached is for all of the World Bank’s resources—to improve transportation, to solve waste problems, to improve energy access—to be looked at from the perspective of climate change. What we are asking is for all flows from international financial institutions go into low-carbon investments.

What do you see as the biggest barrier to a legally binding agreement coming out of the Paris negotiations, and what is the most hopeful sign you’ve seen that it will succeed?

We’re very positive about the Paris agreements. We feel that the stars are aligning. It doesn’t mean that the job is done or that it’s easy; it’s still very hard, and there are still a lot of chances for things to go wrong, but what we see is the energy behind the transformation that’s already happening. Renewable energy has never been so cheap, or so widely available, and annual installation now exceed any other type of energy technology. We see movements way beyond the typical environmental organizations joining the fight and making climate change a priority.

We have labor, we have youth, we have the Vatican, we have faith communities, cities, local authorities; everyone’s joining the fight in an unprecedented way, and it’s creating really strong momentum. We have clarity on what we want to achieve in Paris, so we’re not asking for an unrealistic agreement. We know what we can achieve there and we know what elements we want, and all the good ones exist in the current text. Of course, there are also bad elements in the text, so what negotiators at Paris need to do is choose the good from the bad. This makes the job much easier than not having the elements you want in the agreement in the first place.