Cancun climate talks

Dec 01, 2010

Representatives from nearly 200 nations have gathered for United Nations-sponsored climate talks in Cancun this week. Talk to Sarene Marshall about some of the issues being talked about in Cancun-- our forests, conservation, and how to combat climate change.

Why Cancun? The location is a cultural and environmental disaster - how to encourage lots of flights and excess consumption while destroying native fishing villages! Why give your critics a stick to hit you with and schedule any conference? What damage was done to the climate by the thousands of delegates who flew to Cancun?

It's true that many people will be in Cancun for the UN climate conference.  But it is difficult - if not impossible - to solve a global problem like climate change without bringing people from around the world together. 

Mexico is a place where the problem of climate change is actually quite apparent today, including in the nearby reefs in the Gulf of Mexico.  Like reefs around the world, they are threatened by bleaching caused by warming oceans.  The Mexican government is taking climate change and their responsibility for this conference quite seriously, with strong domestic commitments to reduce emissions and high-level political involvement in negotiations leading up to these two weeks in Cancun.

Can you talk about what decisions could be made in respect to forest conservation at Cancun?

Addressing the role of forests in causing - and solving - climate change is one of the key areas around which there is strong consensus among countries.  In fact, reducing emissions from deforestation was called out explicitly in the Accord that came out of Copenhagen last year, and billions of dollars were commited to the cause. 

Government officials in Cancun are discussing a fairly detailed draft agreement around forests that could set the parameters for a global system to protect and restore forests, and we may see that agreement emerge from Cancun.  It would include some details on what kinds of funding could be directed to forests, what kinds of activities would qualify, and how actions would be measured and monitored.

As opposed to Copenhagen, is there more urgency in the participants in Cancun?

There should be, because the impacts of climate change are becoming more apparent every day.

It is true that fewer heads of state will be in Cancun than Copenhagen, but that might be a good thing.  It will alleviate some of the pressure-cooker environment, and led governments work on rebuilding trust, hammering out agreements, and creating the building blocks for future negotiations.

Do you see any change in the US position after Copenhagen? What has gotten better, or worse? What do we need to do to get the US onboard an international agreement?

The most notable issue regarding the US is the failure to pass domestic legislation to curtail greenhouse gas emissions.  That has eroded some faith in the US being able to live up to the commitments pledged by the President.  Americans still overwhelmingly want to take action to reduce carbon pollution to create jobs, improve public health and save money, but Congress needs to act to support those goals.

Do you see advances in REDD implementation after Cancun? Will REDD be a reality soon?

There is a lot of encouraging news on the REDD front.  Given the strong endorsement for protecting and restoring forests in the Bali roadmap in 2007, and again in Copenhagen, many countries are moving to make REDD a reality on the ground.

In two of the leading forest emitter countries - Indonesia and Brazil - the governments have made pledges to dramatically cut deforestation and the emissons caused by forest destruction.  Brazil has set up an Amazon Fund, with financial assistance from the Government of Norway, to fund actions that will contribute to these goals.  These funds are targeting some of the municipalities that are responsible for the highest levels of deforestation, and helping farmers, ranchers, industry and local governments do what is necessary to comply with environmental laws and produce agricultural products with a lower carbon footprint.  The Nature Conservancy helped one of these municipalities - Paragominas - get off Brazil's deforestation "black list" in April.

There are similarly encouraging stories from Indonesia and other forest countries that are taking the issue of emissions from deforestation seriously.

Who determines exactly how much carbon costs? Are these carbon trading proposals more like Wall Street gambling?

There are several different mechanisms that might determine prices on carbon.  A carbon tax would work like other taxes to set a rate or amount that was charged on certain carbon-producing activities.  In a cap-and-trade system, a limit on the total amount of carbon would be set.  Emitting entities (e.g., a power plant) would have to decide whether it could reduce emissions more cheaply through its own actions (e.g., energy efficiency) or whether it would buy a credit from another entity.  The price would be determined through a market for carbon credits.  Since the amount of carbon allowed would be limited by the cap, the price would be determined by supply-and-demand, similar to the price for rare items on an ebay auction.

Thanks for your insights, Ms. Marshall! Is it true that we're already seeing the effects of climate change around the world, particularly in developing countries? How can countries prepare for climate change now and how can Cancun help speed those preparations?

Carbon emissions and other heat-trapping gases are causing many changes in our climate system.  These include temperature and precipitation changes that our society has been built around, whether rain that supplies our crops with water or glaciers that provide water to cities.  Climate change is also causing more frequent and severe storms, as well as sea level rise that will affect people everywhere from Florida to Long Island to Bangladesh. The impacts of these changes are most pronounced in the most vulnerable places on earth.

Natural systems provide important benefits to people in the face of climate change.  Coastal systems like mangroves and reefs can buffer storm surge and sea level rise, while forest protection can help ensure the reliability of water supplies. And these strategies are often very cost-effective, compared to engineered solutions such as sea walls or levees.  As countries begin to cope with inevitable impacts of climate change, it is critical that they recognize the important benefits of protecting ecosystems to help people adapt. 

The UN process has already recognized the role of ecosystems in helping prevent and buffer the impacts of climate change.  But funding is really needed to help countries implement these strategies, especially in the developing world.  In Cancun, it is important that countries maintain and expand on the financial commitments they made in Copenhagen to this cause.


We all want the biggest house, biggest, most powerful car and cheap gas and cheap eletricity. GM just announced that their sales rose 11% in November due to increased demand for SUVs and Pickups. When will we learn? Why doesn't the government start raising the gas tax $0.25 every 6 months to get gas to $6-7 gallon and force all these bloated idiots to conserve? Katrina and the resulting spike in gas proves it can be done yet we lack the political ability to make any hard choices.

It is true that the US is the largest historical emitter, and still one of the largest per-capita emitters.  So, action here at home is critical to solving this global problem.  But that will require political will, as you say.  Unfortunately, much of the American public has not placed dealing with this issue as a high priority.  And there is a high degree of misunderstanding around the solutions.  We need to be doing much more to ensure that Americans understanding the need for urgent action. 

Take VA's attorney general - he keeps saying the jury is still out on whether global warming is real. How do people like that get elected? Just look at DC's weather this past year - the most snowfall EVER, the hottest summer EVER, a CAT 4 hurricane in the Atlantic (nobody cares because it didn't hit anything). What is it going to take? A failure of our corn & wheat crops and food riots? Wake up people.

The agricultural community is a very important constituency in the US, and the industry stands to experience very significant impacts from climate change.   While impacts of climate change on food supply has been a motivator for other countries, we certainly should be doing more to reach out to agricultural leaders in this country.  At, you can see for yourselves what changes in precipitation and temperature have already happened, and what is projected to happen in the future.   These changes would have be impacts.  For example, temperature increases in Pennsylvania could reduce dairy production by 20%.  And temperature increases coupled with precipitation increases in the plains, would mean that winter snow (i.e., water storage for the spring) would be converted to downpours that cause flooding on fields.

Are you getting a lot of hate mail? Comments sections on climate change articles typically seem to be very angry and negative, but I guess they may not be representative of what the majority of people think.

We do hear a lot of different perspectives on climate change.  But one thing we know is that the majority of Americans are supportive of taking action to reign in pollution caused by burning fossil fuels, and they believe that investments in renewable energy, energy efficiency, and forest protection can help create jobs and support our economy.  We recently saw Californians, for example, vote to maintain that state's laws to protect the environment and reign in dirty energy.

At the same time, it's clear we need to reach a broader and more diverse audience - from all walks of life and all parts of the country - if we are to build widespread public and political will.

I think from some of the comments many people still look at local and yearly weather events to talk about GW. I think we would be much safer if we rely on proven long term trends rather than spectacular and sad events like Katrina which might not be caused by GW. Just beacuse we know GW is happening doesn't mean all weather related events are due to it.

It's true that no single weather event can be tied to climate change/global warming, but what we do know is that events like Hurricane Katrina, the floods in Pakistan, the forest fires in Russia, or the Snowmaggedon here in DC are consistent with long-term trends and patterns that we will see more of.  More frequent, more severe storms are likely to hit many parts of the US, in part because warmer air holds more moisture and wetter air must come down - either as snow or rain.

Hi Sarene! I was wondering what the role of traditional and indigenous peoples is or will be in Cancun. Also, although I believe REDD offers potential to protect tropical forests and generate benefits for people, are there any frameworks in place right now on the ground which clearly show how local communities can benefit? Isn't that the missing piece?

Indigenous peoples are represented in the UN processes, both through their direct participation, and through civil society organizations and governments that represent their interests.

The issue of benefit sharing from REDD with local people is a critical one.  The Nature Conservancy firmly believes that decisions about forest use must fully involve local communities who rely directly on forest resources for their survival, and who are often the best stewards of forests.

There are many examples around the world of frameworks in which communities effectively manage forest resources and benefit from their use, including in Mexico.  Take a look at the Nature Conservancy's web page for some more information about these types of projects.

My records show SF food comes from 26 countries and 50 states. Transportation costs and less to eat with more pollution. More urban farming? Detroit is half vacant.

It's true that our global food supply comes with high costs in terms of environmental impact, fossil fuel use, etc.  And land clearing for agriculture (including beef, soy, and oil palm) is one of the leading causes of climate-changing carbon emissions. Making choices about local and in season food can make a difference that benefits both the planet and local economies.

In This Chat
Ms. Sarene Marshall
Sarene Marshall is the Managing Director for the Nature Conservancy's global Climate Change Team. Her previous roles on the Climate Change team include Deputy Team Lead and Associate Director of the Conservancy?s program aimed at Reducing Emissions from Deforestation. Sarene came to the Conservancy in 2002 and served from 2004-2007 as Director of Business Planning and Analysis, responsible for organization-wide strategic planning and key change management and globalization projects on behalf of the CEO and his direct reports. Before joining TNC, Sarene was a Senior Associate with Mercer Management Consulting (now called Oliver Wyman), a division of Marsh & McLennan Companies (MMC). Previously, Sarene spent five years in the Latin America program of World Wildlife Fund (WWF), where she managed grants administration, led the establishment of WWF offices in the region, and developed fundraising tools and strategies.
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