The UN climate summits show a world where the nuances between should, must and will, can prove decisive for the outcome of negotiations.

Guardians of the Earth

Filip Antoni Malinowski

Austria, Germany, 2017 86 min


In 1989 Bill McKibben published The End of Nature, and with it a powerful message to the effect that humanity’s destructive impact on the earth’s biosphere was about to reach a point of no return. The mechanisms of climate change that were about to set in would change both nature and our conditions for life forever.

For at least 30 years we’ve known what we’re up against, a fact most people who’ll take the time to watch the documentary Guardians of the Earth know all too well. The film starts by showing Donald Trump responding to a journalist’s question concerning what he’ll do about climate change. Rather than answer, Trump goes on to attack his predecessor. Obama’s statement that global warming poses the most serious problem of our time is, Trump says, the most stupid claim that has ever been made.

Time Is Running Out

We should be grateful that the world doesn’t pay much attention to Trump on this question. The systematic process that for the past three decades has tried to implement more effective climate measures internationally is still moving forward, and much seems to indicate that it’s become a self-reinforcing mechanism. Here many would argue that the process is far too slow, but nevertheless this development is proof of a widely held determination to do something constructive about climate change. The arena where this resolve is put to the test is the UN’s annual climate summit.

«It’s usually in personal conversations – “informal meetings” – that real progress towards good solutions is made.»

After many years of disappointing results, the Paris talks in the autumn of 2015 led to an important breakthrough. Guardians of the Earth provides an interesting look at the teeming anthill of people who met in the French capital. Through a mix of short interviews and footage of the long series of meetings and negotiations, we follow an occasionally powerful engagement. It’s stated as a matter of fact that climate change is happening and that we’re running out of time. It’s similarly highlighted that the goal of keeping the global rise of temperatures to below 2 degrees Celsius isn’t enough. The world will have to achieve 1.5 degrees, above all because of the world’s poor.

An International Framework

There’s a line running from these annual climate summits back to the Brundtland Commission’s Our Common Future of 1987. The report was written as part of a drawn-out process that contributed to bolstering a pragmatic, reform-oriented environmental policy in which it was genuinely believed that technological progress and economic profit should be the basis for saving the environment. The ideal became to locate the problem-solving process in bureaucracy, science, the economy and in self-perpetuating technological progress.

Guardians of the Earth Director: Filip Antoni Malinowski

An international framework, containing everything from common objectives to measures aimed at diverting the economy into a more climate-friendly direction, was eventually put into place. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was signed in 1992, and the UN’s annual climate summit has since played a crucial role in securing progress in the field. Over time, its measures have contributed to developing a climate regime that encompasses not only commitments to reducing emissions, but also incorporates institutional arrangements responsible for ensuring that climate adaptations, financial arrangements, the transfer of technology and market-based mechanisms can function properly.

«It’s usually in personal conversations – “informal meetings” – that real progress towards good solutions is made.»

Paradoxical Discourse

The documentary film Guardians of the Earth provides an insight into how the never-ending negotiations take place. We encounter people who’ve been involved in the field for years, and observe their involvement in a hectic process that must balance between the need to get all the countries on board and the desire to make the wording of the agreement as ambitious as possible. This is a world in which the nuances between should, must and will, can prove decisive: whether the negotiations make progress or come crashing to a halt.

Alliance-building is required to achieve the right wording.  Big meetings aren’t where the decisions are made. The real negotiations take place in smaller groups and according to one of the participants, it’s usually in personal conversations (“informal meetings”) that real progress towards good solutions is made.

World leaders watch a video about climate change during the Climate Summit 2014 at United Nations headquarters in New York, New York, USA, 23 September 2014. The Climate Summit, which was called by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to attempt to push global action on climate issues, is being held the day before the opening of the General Debate of the United Nations General Assembly. EPA/JUSTIN LANE

Some parties resist. Saudi Arabia’s lead negotiator is not the minister of environment, but the minister of oil. Australia maintains that there’s no reason why their coal exports should be scaled back as their coal is superior to other types of coal, and in any case the world won’t stop relying on this source of energy. It’s remarkable how similarly everyone argues, regardless of whether it’s Norwegian oil or something else that’s being defended. Everyone knows that what is being defended are the nation’s short-term interests, but the agenda is concealed in a discourse proclaiming that extracting oil or coal is beneficial for the environment.

«The agenda is wrapped in a discourse proclaiming that extracting oil or coal is beneficial for the environment.»

The Importance of the Market

One of the participants states that while the climate negotiations initially were indeed about the climate, they have increasingly come to revolve around economic interests. In this sense it’s perhaps symptomatic that big multinational corporations have been allowed to run conference stands during the talks. Or as an activist puts it: They’ve paid for the right to make themselves heard and can thus influence what’s going on.

Towards the end of the negotiations the leading politicians assume a more central role. The Obama administration’s Secretary of State John Kerry makes it clear that the solution is to be found in an energy policy that doesn’t discard fossil fuels, but makes sure that alternative solutions can succeed as quickly as possible by sending a strong signal to markets.

«Trump thus secures a place for himself in history as the president who wasn’t there when the world moved forward.»

As the summit ends, the news that 195 countries have agreed to a global contract establishing the maximum allowed temperature increase to be 1.5 degrees Celsius is greeted by jubilation. The agreement is described as an historic one in which rich countries made greater concessions than they initially seemed willing to make. I feel myself getting carried along by the hope of the moment. The film’s last line goes to Donald Trump: Was there anyone who seriously thought that international bureaucrats would be allowed to control what the US does? We know the answer. Trump thus secures a place for himself in history as the president who wasn’t there when the world moved forward.