Climate change: where next after Warsaw?


Over the past two weeks, international negotiators from 195 member nations met in Warsaw, Poland, for the 19th Conference of the Parties (COP 19) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The goal of the meeting was to work towards developing a new legally binding international treaty to curb rising global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in order to limit the global average temperature increase to 2°C by the end of the century. This future agreement, slated to be signed in 2015 and enter into force in 2020, would replace the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2020. The conference came after the release earlier this autumn of the 5th assessment report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which again states that warming of the climate system is unequivocal and asserts that “human influence on the climate system is clear”.

What was hoped for at the end of COP 19 was a clear roadmap and timeline to conclude negotiations on a new international climate treaty by the COP meeting in Paris at the end of 2015. Negotiations ended on Saturday with a directive for all nations to establish and submit their emissions reduction contributions to the UNFCCC by early 2015, providing a short window of time for review before the Paris conference. A stalemate over the use of the word ‘commitments’ ran the conference into the weekend, but the consensus for nations to submit ‘contributions’ rather than ‘commitments’ roughly keeps the negotiations on track for the 2015 agreement deadline. In the interim, governments will draft the new climate agreement, which will appear at the next UN climate conference in Peru in 2014.

Despite this progress, the question currently remains as to whether each government’s contributions to reduce GHG emissions will be enough to keep increased average temperatures to 2°C by 2100. According to the UNFCCC website: “The reality is that a looming gap remains between current national and international actions and intentions to reduce emissions and the actual level required to keep average global temperatures rising no more than two degrees above their pre-industrial level.”

The origins of UN climate negotiations

The UNFCCC is an international environmental treaty that was originally negotiated at the UN Conference on Environment and Development in 1992. The treaty’s objective is to “stabilise greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system” (UNFCCC is also the name of the secretariat that supports the institutions involved in international climate change negotiations). Since the treaty was established, the 195 parties to the convention have met annually since 1995. The first UNFCCC international climate treaty, the Kyoto Protocol, was adopted in 1997. The Kyoto Protocol established legally binding obligations on 37 developed countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions with emission reduction targets. The Kyoto Protocol entered into force in 2005 with 192 parties. The Protocol’s first commitment period started in 2008 and ended in at the end of 2012. In 2011 and 2012, a weaker version of the Protocol was agreed upon and extended for a second commitment period, which began on 1 January 2013 and will end in 2020.

At the 2007 COP in Bali, it was decided that a framework for climate change mitigation beyond 2012 was to be agreed upon at the 2009 COP in Copenhagen. However, no legally binding international agreement was adopted at the Copenhagen conference. The document that was ultimately produced, the Copenhagen Accord, addressed climate change as one of the greatest modern challenges, asserted that actions should be taken to keep the average temperature increase to below 2°C, but did not include any legally binding commitments, nor a target year for peaking emissions, nor a baseline for the 2°C target.

In 2011, the Durban COP laid the framework for the time period beyond 2020, when the Kyoto Protocol expires. At the Durban conference, all member nations committed to a “comprehensive plan that would come closer over time to delivering the ultimate objective of the Climate Change Convention: to stabilise greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that will prevent dangerous interference with the climate system and at the same time will preserve the right to sustainable development”. The parties also launched a new platform of negotiations to deliver a “new and universal greenhouse gas reduction protocol, legal instrument or other outcome with legal force by 2015 for the period beyond 2020. The new negotiation critically includes finding ways to further raise the existing level of national and international action and stated ambition to bring greenhouse gas emissions down”. Since the Durban conference, the UNFCCC has been working towards this goal and the development of a second treaty.

Obstacles to be overcome for coordinated universal action on climate change

To limit GHG emissions and thereby keep the global temperature increase below 2°C, coordinated international action is required, resulting from an effective, legally binding universal agreement, which has as of yet not been achieved in international climate negotiations. Any future agreement must include not only numerical emission reduction targets and timetables, but also a strong enforcement mechanism (the Kyoto protocol only had the latter, and only addressed industrialised nations). Finally, an effective future agreement needs to have a mechanism for rich countries to effectively transfer technology and resources to poor countries to finance sustainable development. While mechanisms for technology transfer and resources have been discussed and were negotiated at the Warsaw conference, along with a mechanism for reducing deforestation (a potent source of GHG emissions), a legally binding international agreement for emissions reductions will likely remain elusive. Burden sharing is difficult to achieve, and the free rider problem, inherent to climate reduction efforts being a public good, gives each nation an incentive to understate their true willingness to engage in climate mitigation action in the hope that other nations will shoulder more of the burden.

Public goods problems are not new, though they have often proven difficult to overcome. Despite the less than optimistic conclusion of the Warsaw conference, climate change mitigation needs to be effectively addressed. Even if we are successful in holding global warming to 2°C, we will still have a climate that is fundamentally distinct from the one that human civilisation has known over the last 10,000 years. If GHG emissions are not limited, CO2 levels will climb well above double their pre-industrial levels to 800 or 900 parts per million by 2100, leading to a likely temperature increase of 5°C, with mostly negative consequences for human well-being and the survival of many species on earth.

*Libby Blanchard [2012] is doing a PhD in Geography. Picture credit: Stoonn and


Do quotas for women in politics work?


Women participated actively in democratisation in Latin America, which began for most countries in the 1980s. Across the region, women served as combatants in armed movements, as protesters decrying the violence of dictatorship, and as human rights activists seeking truth and reconciliation. Yet democratisation marked a return to “politics as usual”—open, competitive elections contested by political parties and dominated by men. Women comprised less than 10 percent of legislators selected in founding democratic elections. This outcome signalled that women’s activist roles would not be “enough” to overcome the systematic gender discrimination women faced in accessing political office.

In response, female activists leveraged domestic and international discourses on gender equality to secure their political rights: in 1991, Argentina passed the world’s first gender quota law, requiring that parties nominate specified percentages of women to legislative office. Quota laws currently apply or will apply to national elections in all Latin American countries save Chile, Guatemala, and Venezuela. Most laws demand that parties nominate between 30-50 percent women, leading to dramatic results. As of August 2013, women comprised an average of 24 percent of the single or lower chambers in Latin American countries with quotas, compared to 18 percent in countries without quotas.


Importantly, Latin America’s experience reveals that quota laws’ ability to elect women depends on their exact provisions. First, electoral systems matter: quotas work best in vote-by-list systems (proportional representation), especially when lists are closed and parties – rather than voters – rank candidates. Second, successful quotas eliminate the legal loopholes that allow political elites to avoid nominating the required percentages of women. For example, placement mandates prevent parties from pooling women in unelectable positions at the bottom of lists. Across the region, initial quota laws often lacked these mandates (Costa Rica) or included other loopholes: excluding senate elections (Argentina, Brazil, and Ecuador) or counting substitute, rather than titleholder, candidates as filling the quota (Venezuela and Bolivia). When Mexico first adopted quotas in 2002, for example, placement mandates applied, but party leaders exploited other loopholes: using primaries to nominate candidates to obtain a quota exemption and running women in unwinnable districts.

Quotas must also address informal practices of subversion. For example, the 2002 Mexican quota law required that 30 percent of titleholder (not substitute) candidacies go to women. Parties then placed male substitutes alongside female titleholders; after the election, the women renounced their seats and the men entered Congress. In 2009, these so-named “Juanitas” caused an uproar, and in 2011 the Mexican electoral court ruled that titleholder and substitute candidates must be of the same sex. Elsewhere, parties have broken the law to avoid meeting quota obligations, as in Bolivia, where male candidates’ names were recorded as female names.


Rather than undermine quotas, these subversions have fuelled the revisions necessary for quotas to succeed across the region. Further, quotas have expanded: they have increased the threshold percentage of female candidates, diffused to the subnational level and other offices, and required that parties dedicate resources to female candidates. For example, Mexico raised its quota from 30 to 40 percent in 2008, and proposed a further increase to 50 percent, or parity, in 2013. Mexico also requires that 2 percent of parties’ public funding be allocated to training female leaders; six other Latin American countries have similar “party rules”. Fifteen Latin American countries apply quotas to subnational elections (in Mexico, a federal country where states govern their own elections, all but two states have adopted quotas). Quotas also govern women’s access to other branches of government. Colombia applies a 30 percent quota to the “highest positions” in the executive branch and Ecuador and Bolivia now demand parity in the executive and the judiciary.

Quota implementation in Latin America has not gone unchallenged. Detractors frequently argue that quotas interfere with meritocratic recruitment, alleging that “quota women” are the female relatives of male politicians, thereby perpetuating – rather than destabilising – elite control. Similarly, quota women are criticised for being dependent on party leaders, lacking autonomous voices, and failing to promote feminist policies.

Yet such criticisms are misplaced. First, considerable evidence indicates that quota women are neither less qualified (in terms of their cvs) nor less productive (in terms of their legislative activity) than male legislators. Second, nearly all Latin American politicians are drawn from upper-class families or networks. As a result, some female legislators will be elite, non-feminist, unproductive and undeserving – but so will some (or even many) men. All political leaders, not just women, must be held accountable for improving democracy, for sharing political power and for legislating on behalf of marginalised groups. Quota laws alone cannot attain this goal, but, importantly, quotas end women’s exclusion from politics based on discriminatory, outdated beliefs. On increasing women’s presence, quota laws in Latin America can be judged successful.

*Jennifer M. Piscopo [2002] is Assistant Professor of Politics at Occidental College in Los Angeles, CA, and Magda Hinojosa is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Arizona State University in Tempe, AZ. To read their policy brief on Latin America’s quota laws, visit Picture credit: Dragan and Wiki Commons.

Devil’s advocates at the Khmer Rouge trial


There is often a tension between facts as they are reported in media and facts as they are alleged – and only alleged – in courts of law before a verdict has been reached. The principle of “innocent until proven guilty” is essential to current justice systems, but it’s also ontologically confusing when news reports and other sources have already established the facts we “know”.

This tension was especially hard for me to get my head around when I started reporting on Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge tribunal a year ago. It’s a massive case trying ageing leaders for a slew of crimes that took place nearly 40 years ago. An estimated 1.7 million or more Cambodians died under the Khmer Rouge regime, which ruled the country from April 1975 until January 1979. Its surviving leaders are charged with crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide for directing policies that saw all of Cambodia’s cities evacuated, the population forced into back-breaking labour in the countryside without adequate food or medical care and any suspected “enemies” executed, some having been tortured first.

It wasn’t just the huge scale of the charges that made presumption of innocence for these leaders hard for me to grasp at first. It’s rare, even among international courts, for trials to come so long after the events have been chronicled and examined through history books, survivors’ memoirs, and the recollections of an entire generation. The time that has passed has solidified the outline of what happened in the public consciousness. So on my first day at court, it was somehow surprising to see erudite, soft-spoken defence lawyers energetically defending Pol Pot’s right-hand man, Nuon Chea, and Khmer Rouge head of state Khieu Samphan. How could these seemingly reasonable lawyers still question the accepted facts or attempt to justify these men’s actions?

Of course, I knew in theory that everyone has the right to a fair trial – even mass killers…er, alleged mass killers. That train of thought – the presumption of guilt, and the need to remind myself of the legal presumption of innocence – would become a familiar one for me over the past year as I covered the lengthy trial first for The Phnom Penh Post and then while interning for The Associated Press. I wasn’t alone in my struggle. Sydney Schanberg, a formerly Cambodia-based journalist whose writings were the basis for the film The Killing Fields, became infuriated during his cross-examination by the defence lawyers – he seemed unable to comprehend how they could possibly question Khmer Rouge leaders’ role in the tragedies he had witnessed.

Asserting relative guilt

Strangely, for my part, I found myself increasingly sympathising – even rooting for – the defence lawyers, though not for their clients. I was impressed by these professional underdogs’ thoughtful arguments in what seemed a hopeless case. Their arguments often hinged less on claiming their clients’ innocence and more on asserting the relative guilt of others who would never be tried, from current Cambodian government leaders who were once Khmer Rouge commanders to leaders of Western nations like France and the US. Such leaders, they argued, had set up an inherently biased court to absolve themselves of their own guilt, whether about complicity, colonialism or the carpet bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War.

“No one at this court is interested in ascertaining the truth,” said Victor Koppe, a defence lawyer for Nuon Chea, in his closing statements last month. “I can almost feel people in this courtroom saying to themselves, ‘Well, yes, but that’s because they are guilty.’” Although the judges are supposed to announce a verdict in the first half of 2014, Koppe suggested they already had an answer, thus calling into question the point of the prolonged trial.

For me, the defence lawyers’ very ability to raise such issues was part of the trial’s point, even if their impact on the verdict is questionable at best. The defence’s opportunity to humanise even the most notorious (alleged?) criminals, and to question the trial’s framework, was perhaps ironically one of the trial’s strongest rejections of regimes like the Khmer Rouge, which did not tolerate dissent nor acknowledge the humanity of its victims. The defence lawyers’ arguments got less media attention than the prosecution’s, but it was the defence that most often pointed out that these events did not occur in a vacuum and could not be pinned on a few isolated individuals. If lessons for the future are a goal of such tribunals, these attempts to connect crimes to their broader context deserve more notice.

*Justine Drennan [2011] did an MPhil in International Relations and has been reporting, writing and editing Cambodian news stories of international interest as an intern for The Associated Press.  Picture credit of Cambodian youth seeing the victims’ pictures at Tuol Sleng: Wikimedia Commons and Albeiro Rodas.

Doctors and ethics: from the Nazis to now



“Medicine as a profession contains the rudiments of evil […] some of the most humane of medical acts are only small steps away from real evil.”

– Dr Michael Grodin, physician and Holocaust scholar

A physician is supposed to be a healer. Helping patients is so central to the profession’s ideal that newly minted doctors take an oath to “do no harm”. As a medical student, I look forward to the unique honour and responsibility of taking care of patients; but I’m also conscious of – and frightened by – a darker side of medical history. In 2011, I took part in the Fellowships at Auschwitz for the Study of Professional Ethics (FASPE) and learned that in World War II Germany, more physicians than any other professional group joined the Nazi Party and became members of the SS. Droves of doctors who had taken oaths to do no harm somehow became the perpetrators of torture and murder in the form of grotesque medical experiments, the T4 “euthanasia” programme that murdered thousands of mentally handicapped individuals, and direct participation in the so-called “Final Solution” at Auschwitz and other death camps.

What is perhaps more disturbing is the fact that the second world war was neither the first nor the last time that groups of physicians have been perpetrators of acts that should have been antithetical to the values of their chosen profession: physicians tortured political prisoners in Argentina under Pinochet; in Guantanamo Bay, American soldiers were accused of torture; during the worst of Hurricane Katrina, American physicians were accused of euthanising their patients. If we include ethical breaches conducted during medical research, the number of physician perpetrators increases still further: the Willowbrook hepatitis experiments, venereal disease experiments in Guatemala and Tuskeegee syphilis experiments all occurred after World War II.

Unique status

What I realised in researching these topics is that the perpetrators became perpetrators not in spite of being doctors’ but because they were doctors. Their status as doctors carried with it certain moral vulnerabilities that made it easier for them to make the almost unfathomable transition from physician to murderer. Their knowledge of the human body became knowledge about how far they could take their torture without killing their victims. They had unique status in society that allowed them to do things that in others’ hands would have been criminal. Furthermore, they were used to inflicting pain on their patients in order to heal them. When Nazi doctors were exhorted by their superiors to exterminate parts of the populace to “cleanse” German genetic stock, they used a medical explanation to rationalise what they were doing. As one Nazi doctor, Fritz Klein, put it: “Of course I am a doctor and I want to preserve life. And out of respect for life I would remove a gangrenous appendix from a diseased body. The Jew is the gangrenous appendix in the body of mankind.”

I published a paper last year in the Journal of Medical Ethics exploring these moral vulnerabilities. My research this year seeks to answer the questions: are there social pressures operating in contemporary medical society that predispose physicians to unethical behaviour? If so, what can we – as medical students, medical schools, and society in general – do to combat them? To this end I am undertaking an MPhil in History, Philosophy, and Sociology of Science, Medicine and Technology over the course of this year. I look forward to continuing to explore these topics as a way to try to make my future profession a safer one.

 *Alessandra Colaianni [2013] is doing an MPhil in the History and Philosophy of Science. 
Picture credit: Vichaya Kiatying-Angsulee and