Why Didn’t These Two Glacier Countries Sign the Paris Agreement?

Earth Day, April 22, marked a major step forward in global efforts to address climate change when 175 parties gathered in New York to sign the Paris Agreement, the accord that had been adopted last December. The ceremony at the United Nations Headquarters marked the historical record for first-day signatures on an international agreement.  This event marks a strong commitment to the next phase of the process, in which countries deposit the technical documents known as “instruments of ratification,” which spell out in greater detail the steps that they will take to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), said: “Today is a remarkable, record-breaking day in the history of international cooperation on climate change and a sustainable future for billions of people alive today and those to come.”  

Countries with glaciers have already experienced the impact of climate change directly. Did this make them more likely to sign the agreement? The large countries with glaciers, like the US, China, India, Pakistan, Russia, Italy, and France, all signed. However, not all of the smaller countries did.

By GlacierHub’s reckoning, there are 11 such small glacier countries. Nine of them signed: Iceland, Norway, Austria, Switzerland, Nepal, Bhutan, Peru, Tajikistan, and New Zealand.

Chile was one of the two that did not participate. Their failure to attend the ceremony in New York will not prevent them from joining, since the signing period remains open for a year. The leaders in that country, who otherwise would have traveled to New York, remained in Chile to mark the death of Patricio Aylwin, the 97-year-old former president who passed away on April 19. Aylwin was elected to power in 1990, marking the return to democracy in the country after 17 years of military rule under Augusto Pinochet, who had deposed the democratically-elected Socialist president, Salvador Allende, in a coup.

Ala-Too Square (former Lenin Square), Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
Ala-Too Square, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. (Source: Stefan Krasowski via Flickr)

The other country that did not sign was Kyrgyzstan, despite the fact that it had a significant delegation at COP21 in Paris last year. The reasons for its failure to participate are more complex. Leaders in that country may also have had their attention distracted by national events. A new prime minister, Sooronbay Jeenbekov, assumed office on April 13, replacing Temir Sariyev, who had held the position for less than a year.  

To understand Kyrgyzstan’s absence, GlacierHub contacted a number of people in Central Asia.

One of our contacts wrote that they had heard that Kyrgyzstan will sign the Paris Agreement this fall. “It’s a [pitiful] situation. The country could have at least sent an intention of signing the agreement,” this person wrote. “In the meantime, Kyrgyzstan is going through the internal process of discussion over the Paris agreement, which didn’t take place before COP 21 in December 2015. … [T]he ratification of the Paris agreement could have been organized after government signing the agreement, but the process is taking place now.”

Another, writing in a tone that suggests greater disappointment, stated: “This is a very sad story… The agreement was not properly discussed between the ministries. They will sign, but later. Certainly not a good sign about the capacities of the responsible bodies.”

A third, seemingly resigned to such delays, told us: “I am not surprised given the chaos in the government. …   It has to do with simple government bureaucratic capacity. A new Prime Minister was appointed only recently and a Paris agreement is not exactly something the Ministry of Foreign Affairs would put on the top of the agenda signing in the middle of an economic crisis.” In a follow-up email, this person added, “You can’t imagine how screwed up the machinery of government is in reality.”

Taken together, these statements make it seem much more likely than not that Kyrgyzstan will join the other glacier countries in signing this crucial agreement.

Kyrgyz in Paris COP21
Discussion on 5 December 2015 of Kyrgyz and Tajik delegations to COP21, with Christian Huggel and Ben Orlove, to plan 8 December meeting (source: Svetlana Jumaeva)

“Kyrgyzstan’s persistent problem is political indeterminacy,” Scott Horton, a lecturer at Columbia Law School, told GlacierHub, underscoring the reasons that others had offered for the delay. “And this in turn shows that Kyrgyzstan, unlike most of its neighbors, takes the process of democratic consensus formation very seriously.”

Another source told us that on April 25, the group of Kyrgyz delegates to Paris, concerned about the comments that they had received about their country’s lack of participation, began to talk about possible actions. This source indicated that they are discussing which specific organizations to mobilize to develop a response–a step that supports Horton’s account of the seriousness of their deliberations.

The small island states offer a useful contrast. Of the 37 members of the Association of Small Island States, 35 of them signed. The only two that did not participate have very small populations (the Cook Islands, with roughly 10,000 inhabitants, and tiny Niue, whose population barely exceeds 1,000), and, moreover, some of their international affairs are handled by New Zealand, with whom they have long-standing relations. Indeed, 13 of these small island states were among the 15 countries who submitted their instruments of ratification on the same day. These countries are diverse, and some of them have political systems that, like Kyrgyzstan, lack coordination among ministries and have frequent turnover of leadership.

One significant difference is that they have a long history of coordination on international climate accords—a striking difference with the small glacier states, some of whom cooperate on specific issues such as glacier monitoring and the management of glacier-related hazards, but who do not work together so closely.  This contrast suggests the importance of such coordination in allowing small vulnerable countries to participate effectively in the arena of international climate politics.

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