The privilege of representing a continent at a United Nations forum is certainly something that everyone would be proud of.
However, there are days when David Lesolle has felt that this responsibility should instead be shouldered by a heart-stoppingly beautiful young woman ÔÇô a “Miss Climate Change Negotiator”, who would be able to intoxicate with her western male counterparts with her wiles and get them to agree to give Africa what it wants.
“They would listen more to her than they do with poor old David,” Lesolle told a conference of African environmentalists meeting in Grand Palm Hotel in Gaborone.
If that sounds like a joke, Lesolle will (as he did with his audience at Grand Palm last year) tell you that it is actually not.
“Honestly, this is a negotiating technique; this is reality,” he said with not a hint of mirth.
That reality could mean that Africa needs the services of all its representatives (and their runners-up) who competed at this year’s Miss Universe and Miss World pageants more than it needs its ministries of environment. It could also mean that rather than give themselves additional immunity from criminal prosecution for the genocide they will definitely carry out on their citizens in the future, African leaders could use their next summit to choose a Miss Climate Change Negotiator from the span of the continent’s reigning beauty queens in a Swaziland Reed Dance-like contest.
Lesolle’s official title for his international side job is one that would require an A4-sized business card: Lead United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Africa Group Negotiator. Contracted by 196 parties, the UNFCC is an international environmental treaty negotiated at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development. Its objective is to “stabilise greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” The treaty provides a framework for negotiating specific international treaties that may set binding limits on greenhouse gases. Parties to the convention have met annually from 1995 in Conferences of the Parties (CoP) to assess progress in dealing with climate change. The 20th CoP will take place in Lima, Peru in December where Lesolle will be representing Africa once more.
Until 2008, he worked for the Department of Meteorology where he had risen through the ranks to head various units/divisions including Climatological Data Processing, Climate Applications, Training and Human Resource Development and Research. He came to occupy such positions courtesy of a long enough experience and an MSc in Meteorology, Climatology, and Cloud Physics.
Over the years he has provided training to various meteorological and military personnel ÔÇô including those from the Botswana Defence Force – on aspects relating to applied meteorology (aviation and ballistic meteorology) and climatology. For more than 10 years, he has been climate change policy adviser to the Botswana government, with responsibilities for initiating and implementing climate change strategies in particular for climate change adaptation, energy and development. Between November 2009 and August 2010, he served as Advisor to the Office of the Minister of Environment, Wildlife and Tourism on climate change policy. Locally, regionally and continentally, Lesolle has, through the national development planning process, initiated, managed and contributed to policy and strategy papers.
Little wonder then that when Africa needed a lead negotiator at the UNFCCC, it agreed that Lesolle more than fitted the bill. Explaining the UN process, he starts by saying that on their own, African countries have very little influence at UNFCCC meetings compared to giants such as the United States and China and risk coming home empty-handed if they operate as little islands.
“The strategy is to negotiate as blocs because then you are more numerous and can wield some influence. When you speak at meetings, you speak not as one country but 50-plus countries. However, before that you have to agree on an issue. The issue could be that in your respective countries, the biggest problem is that people don’t understand what climate change is. As a group, you agree on introducing an agenda that will address education, training and public awareness as well as lobbying other countries. The best route is to first agree as regional economic communities [RECs] which ultimately come together and form consensus as Africa. You draft a statement of what you would like to see happen and later negotiate for things such as research, adaptation and reduced prices for technology,” Lesolle says.
As lead negotiator, his role is to develop consensus among RECs, steer the negotiations in the desired direction and open talks with parties that share a particular position with the Africa group. Lesolle says that before the UNFCCC proper, African countries would have started conversations at regional level either through face-to-face or online communication to form consensus. Such nature and level of engagement makes it easier for African countries to come up with a “We the people of Africa …” statement when they get to the UNFCCC.
That statement itself would have gone back and forth a million times in order to get the language right. For example, Country A would quibble with the use of “and” and suggest a replacement that Country B would object to and propose wording that the other two countries would frown upon. Lesolle says that it is important that all countries should agree on the language of the text because it is basis upon which the negotiations are conducted.
He doesn’t say this during this particular interview but at the Grand Palm meeting where he laid out his Miss Climate Change Negotiator theory, Lesolle also revealed some other disturbing details about how corrupted the UNFCCC can be at times. He said then that generally negotiators try to put pressure on others by pulling a farrago of underhand tricks. One, said to be especially favoured by United States and Saudi Arabia negotiators, is to stall talks by asking to be excused in order to “consult the capital.”
Lesolle revealed that even when his cellphone was not on roam, he has himself excused himself to call home ÔÇô “the capital.” He would step outside and play-pretend by jabbering away in Setswana into a dead cellphone, affecting serious demeanour and all necessary pretence. The purpose of this trick, he explained, is to collect one’s thoughts and re-strategise. In much the same way that more business deals are cut on the golf course than in the boardroom, the UNFCCC process is itself less effective than formal meetings that take place outside. Lesolle said that at these meetings, “a lot of work is done in corridors” than during formal talks.
His experience of the UNFCCC system is that all too often the very first thing developed nations will say after Africa makes a proposal is, “We know you want money.” As it happens, that is the case in some instances because compared to other regions, the continent is way behind in terms of climate change systems and too poor to catch up. As just one example, Lesolle says that western nations have advanced (and prohibitively expensive) systems for monitoring weather patterns.
“If, for example, Botswana wanted to buy just one satellite picture for the North East district to do research and systematic observation, it would have pay US$100 000. Remember the sellers would be private sector companies and not the government,” he says, implying by the latter statement that unlike the government, the private sector doesn’t do charity.┬á “But in Africa, as you know, the budget allocation for climate change is very small and is the first to be cut when it becomes necessary to cater for more pressing needs.”
Beginning January 2010, Lesolle has been working as an environmental science lecturer at UB where he teaches applied climatology, climate policy and climate and development. He says that his faculty plans to introduce a programme in MSc in Climate Change in the next academic year which begins in August.