Brice Lalonde: “The first impact of climate change is going to be on water.”

Brice Lalonde was France’s Environment Minister from 1988-1992, and served as the country’s Ambassador for Climate Change Negotiations from 2007 to 2011. He was appointed Executive Coordinator for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) from 2011 to 2012. We met up with him before the COP-21 summit in Paris, in December, 2015*, and spoke with him about the impact climate change is going to have on water.

Why is water such an important issue, and what are the major water-based challenges posed by climate change?

Brice Lalonde: The first impact of climate change is going to be on water. The patters of rainfall are going to change; it’s going to be dry in some places, and it’s going to pour and cause flooding in others. It’s the most important consequence of climate change. Everybody is going to be affected.

Why have water issues been sort of set to the side in international climate talks?

Brice Lalonde: Well, the impact on water is a consequence of climate change, not a solution, and climate talks have concentrated on greenhouse gasses, and national policies to address those emissions. Water starts to be important when you discuss adaptation. But for the time being, when adaptation arises in negotiations, it’s mainly about money—how much money is going to be made available, how much developed countries can provide to developing countries, etc.

Negotiations like the COP summits aren’t technical, the technical issues are brought up at the side events by other institutions. You have all the agricultural institutions that are working on irrigation, for example.

Speaking of negotiations, are these climate talks like COP-21 useful, or is it just a people doing a lot of talking but nobody really connecting on the issue?

Brice Lalonde: Well, that’s a good question, if difficult to answer. Upcoming is COP-21, so it’s been more than 20 years of discussions… It’s funny, when you look back, at how fast time has gone. The framework convention was negotiated in one year, and after that we had the Kyoto Protocol, which was negotiated relatively quickly. But at the time, people didn’t know very well what it would take to reduce emissions, or what efforts were needed.

So of course, this COP is important because it’s meant to find a successor to the Kyoto Protocol, a way all countries should do something and make commitments, whereas before it was only the developed countries that had to act.

The next years will be important as well, with COP-22, then COP-23…which is expected, because climate change is a huge thing, a huge threat. It’s going to be very difficult to get rid of fossil fuels, because that’s the task at hand—how to get rid of fossil fuels. It’s going to take a long time, and these conversations are mainly led by environment ministers and foreign affairs ministers, who are not always the most powerful members of their governments.

What’s most important is what people do in their own countries, and to bring the mainstream of the world economy onboard. It’s a major problem that all global institutions should be concerned with, and need to act on. It can’t just be left to negotiators, even if they’re great people. Negotiations are one thing, but the most important is what is happening in each country.

* Brice Lalonde was originally interviewed for the website, “Water Stories,” by Nestlé Waters.