Dr Alice Baillat first came to Bangladesh in 2011 to learn how the country raises its voice at the international climate talks. In this interview, she talks to the Dhaka Tribune on the positions of climate vulnerable countries in climate negotiations
As a country relatively weak on the global stage, but also one of the forefront victims of climate change, she asked in her research: How has Bangladesh managed to make its voice heard at all?
Recently having defended her thesis titled “Weak Power in Action: Bangladesh Climate Diplomacy,”Dr Alice Baillat now returns to Bangladesh to present the keynote speech at the fourth annual Gobeshona conference on climate change.
Below is condensed version of an interview highlighting some of the findings of her work.
So what do you mean when you say Bangladesh is a “weak power climate leader”?
Well, we know that during the international climate negotiations, there is an imbalance in terms of power relations. Stronger parties [like the United States or the EU] are usually more able to defend their interests above weaker parties like Bangladesh.
At the same time, this is not a way to say that the weak parties don’t have any tools on hand to defend their interests. I have analysed in my PhD thesis the kind of strategies and tools Bangladesh uses to defend its interests in climate negotiations. I have developed the concept of weak power to qualify Bangladesh’s climate policy and diplomacy.
I define “weak power”as the capacity of a weak actor to transform its vulnerability into a comparative advantage and a diplomatic tool to increase its influence on negotiation processes. Because Bangladesh is one of the most vulnerable countries in the world, it has developed forward-looking policy initiatives in the field of adaptation, and is now recognised as a champion in the adaptation field.
Vulnerable countries have a bigger role to play to pave the way for more ambitious climate action in future. Because climate change is a matter of survival for
While vulnerability is often seen as an handicap, it is also a fertile ground for innovation and experimentation.
What are some of the strategies a weak power like Bangladesh has used at the climate negotiations?
Given the country is recognised as both one of the most vulnerable to climate change, but has also contributed very little to global greenhouse gas emissions, it gives Bangladesh moral leadership in climate negotiations.
This moral leadership is an asset for putting pressure on industrialised countries to consider special needs and vulnerabilities of LDCs. But the effect of this moral leadership is more symbolic than real: It has given stronger visibility to vulnerable countries like Bangladesh, but it remains insufficient to convince developed countries to fulfill their financial promises.
Another important strategy for LDCs is to build coalitions in order to bypass certain barriers to their effective participation in negotiations and to increase their collective influence. Some of them come, for instance, with very tiny delegations, sometimes with only one or two delegates and so, they cannot attend all negotiation sessions.
Most of them lack expertise on very technical issues at stake in negotiations. So building coalitions is a way to overcome these obstacles by sharing human and scientific resources. And their voice becomes also stronger if they defend a common position.
We can observe this with the Climate Vulnerable Forum that has played a key role in providing a fresh momentum during the COP21 and beyond.
Weak parties can also borrow the resources they lack to exercise influence. For instance, they seek support from NGOs and experts to increase their expertise on adaptation and mitigation issues, but also to better understand the negotiation process that is also very complex and sometimes hard to follow for LDC negotiators.
Bangladesh has developed an extraordinary high level of expertise on adaptation thanks to some of its experts who are internationally recognised as scientific leaders in the field of adaptation. And also thanks to its vibrant NGO sector and community resilience.
This expertise is also part of the weak power, as it gives authority and legitimacy to the country on adaptation. But one limitation I see to this expertise in Bangladesh is that it is too concentrated in the hands of a dozen of experts. Who will replace Dr Saleemul Huq or Dr Atiq Rahman, for instance? Bangladesh has to invest in the education of next generations to ensure the continuity of this expertise on adaptation.
Can the introduction of the “Loss and Damage” article in the Paris Agreement be a successful example of weak power?
The inclusion of the “Loss and Damage” article in the Paris Agreement is a major collective achievement of the LDCs. And Bangladesh has been a key designer and promoter of this issue in climate negotiations since the beginning.
Developed countries were initially reluctant to put this issue on the UNFCCC agenda, because they feared to open the doors to new financial claims from vulnerable countries. But those countries succeeded to get a standalone article on “Loss and Damage” in the Paris Agreement.
It is not a complete victory, because the article now needs to be implemented and we have seen little progress on this in COP22 and COP23, but LDCs have managed to put this very important issue for them on the agenda, despite reluctances from stronger parties.
What I have observed is that LDCs can possess a weak power that helps to put issues important for them on the UNFCCC agenda. But this weak power remains, per definition, weak, and does not reverse asymmetrical nature of multilateral negotiations.
They can put new issues on the agenda, but they often fail to influence negotiation outcomes that remain a result of bargaining between stronger parties.
Does the fact that Bangladesh is planning to expand its fossil fuel infrastructure weaken its moral legitimacy at the international level?
Bangladesh has to give priority to its development, and of course its development has to be as clean as possible. Bangladesh is already investing a lot in renewable energies and has committed with other CVF countries to shift to 100% renewable energy by 2050. But this energy transition will take time and will require important investments.
So it is tempting for a country like Bangladesh, who legitimately wants to give priority to its economic growth, to look at cheaper sources of energy such as coal. And it is encouraged by countries such as China that sells its coal technology and expertise to developing countries and support power plant projects in countries like Bangladesh.
One limitation I see in Bangladesh is that it is too concentrated in the hands of a dozen of experts. Who will replace Dr Saleemul Huq? Bangladesh has to invest in the education of next generations
This expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure does not weaken moral legitimacy of Bangladesh in my mind. The country is not responsible for global warming, and has the right to develop.
The problem, I think, is more that it is a wrong perception to think that Bangladesh will improve its future through a rapid economic growth based on fossil fuel energies. Because of Bangladesh’s vulnerability to climate change, adding more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere will lead to other hidden costs, such as health and environmental problems due to pollution.
In that sense, do you think there is an over-emphasis on climate change in Bangladesh, at least nationally? Given there are significant problems with governance and population growth.
Well, today in Bangladesh, climate change has become the cause of almost every environmental problem in the country, and there are also some environmental degradations in the country which are not the consequence of climate change but of, for example, wrong development decisions. So climate change can also be a very convenient scapegoat to ignore these wrong political decisions.
But weak power means also using all resources you have to defend your country’sinterests. And for a country like Bangladesh, it is essential to ask for international funding in order to develop adaptation and mitigation measures.
Highlighting the vulnerability of the country to climate change impacts, and its marginal responsibility in creating the climate problem, is a legitimate argument to ask for international support.
But it should not be a way to neglect the responsibility of the government.
In your view, how will the United States leaving the Paris Agreement impact the influence of “weak power”states?
Of course, the US withdrawing will have negative impacts for LDCs but also for the rest of the world. It undermines the universality of the Paris Agreement and impairs state’s confidence in climate cooperation.
It also reduces other countries’ emission space and raises their emission costs, making the achievement of the Paris Agreement’s objectives more difficult. And, of course, the US refusal to contribute to climate aid makes it more difficult for developing countries to mitigate and adapt to climate change.
But the withdrawal will not be effective before 2020, so we can still hope that the current US President will not be re-elected, and that his successor will reconsider Trump’s decision.
This withdrawal can also be a tremendous opportunity for vulnerable countries like Bangladesh to increase their leadership in the fight against climate change. The US has left a leadership vacuum. I am not sure that China really wants to fill this gap, and I don’t think that the European countries can play this role, especially in Brexit’s context.
So, vulnerable countries have a bigger role to play to pave the way for more ambitious climate action in future. Because climate change is a matter of survival for them, and because they are already at the forefront of implementing innovative solutions, they are probably the best guardians of the climate change regime.