Submitted by Mark Smith on Tue, 12/08/2015

Fire, earth, air and water. To the ancient Greeks, these were the keys to understanding the world around them. To modern-day climate negotiators? Not so much.

In the climate discussions in Paris, and in the emerging agreement, just like in all the previous UN climate change negotiations, there is one element missing. Fire is there, with all the talk of limiting warming to 2°C, or toughening up and making it 1.5°. Earth is covered, as negotiators have no qualms talking about forests, agriculture and land use. Some even call for a well-deserved name-check for Mother Earth. Air? Obviously. Carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases are what caused all this angst in the first place. But not water. Water is the missing one.

Negotiators from 195 countries in Paris can’t bring themselves to use that one simple word – ‘water’ – in their text. No way, no how. Won’t do it.

This is not new (or news), but does it matter? Aside from upsetting a few Greek classicists, what importance should water have for responding to climate change?

The Parties to the climate convention easily agree to call repeatedly for use of the ‘best available science’ to guide mitigation and adaptation actions. That’s good. My professors always stressed tackling scientific problems from first principles – so why not start with some basic physics? And just to modernise things a bit, physics that’s more Newton than Empedocles.

From first principles, climate boils down to three things. Radiation (short-wave from the sun and long-wave from the Earth) and then the cycling and exchange of heat and water among land, ocean and atmosphere. Sun, heat and water. Everything about climate follows from those three things. When the interplay among them changes because of climate ‘forcings’ (for example, more long-wave absorbing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere), you have climate change.

That’s why the climate negotiators in Paris, when they talk about the impacts of climate change, cannot avoid discussing not only warming but also floods, droughts, downpours, melting glaciers and sea-level rise  . To state the blindingly obvious, these are all about water – just as physics says should be the case.

Isn’t it edifying when the ‘best available science’ gets it right?

Yet, after 21 CoPs, the word ‘water’ remains unutterable in the climate negotiations  . All the effects that it’s feared changes in the water cycle will unleash are fair game: hunger, disasters, GDP losses, biodiversity decline, even climate injustice. The problem isn’t then that the critical issues aren’t on the table. It’s that the keystone for dealing with them, water management, is missing.

At the CoP21 venue at Le Bourget last week, we pressed the case for recognition of water in the eventual Paris agreement together with a coalition of water institutions under the banner of #ClimateIsWater. At the IUCN Pavilion, we held lively discussions on applications of nature-based solutions for water resources management in climate change adaptation. Our priority is to promote natural infrastructure – the forests, wetlands, floodplains and mangroves for example that provide resilience to the water-related impacts of climate change – which we do through IUCN’s WISE-UP to Climate project.

The messages from the #ClimateIsWater coalition were met with nodding heads and much optimism. French Minister for Ecology, Ségolène Royal, spoke in a press conference about the absolute importance of water in the negotiations  , and Dr Charafat Afailal, Minister Delegate for Environment of Morocco, said that her government was committed to championing the cause of water in the run-up to CoP22 in Marrakech in 2016. But in less public forums, the feedback from negotiators was that, no, there was no room for new words in the draft outcome, not even one as simple and so closely based on the ‘best available science’ as ‘water.’

But does it matter if water is left out? In one sense, no – because water is so fundamental to climate change that it must be part of any response whether it’s given any profile in the agreement or not. This is exactly what is happening. Water is the highest priority for adaptation in countries’ Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs)  and some 80% of financing released by the Adaptation Fund is for water-related projects  . In another sense, though, by spending all these years setting water aside from the agreements they come to, aren’t the Parties to the climate convention just missing opportunities and wasting time? Wouldn’t priorities, strategies and investments for climate adaptation be better targeted and more effective if they started with water management, just like the basic physics of climate says they should?

We found strong enthusiasm for #ClimateIsWater in Paris, which was encouraging. But, still, there was no escaping feeling completely baffled about why it is that 21st century climate negotiators don’t understand what a Greek natural philosopher deduced in ca. 450 BC.

Find out more about the importance of water in the climate change debate in this short video interview with Dr Smith.