Why Global Climate Negotiations Must End

Posted on February 21, 2013

The poisonous atmosphere of climate negotiations has resulted in paralysis; we must now focus on creating dialog and cooperation.

International climate negotiations are going nowhere. Every mega-meeting ends in three predictable outcomes: 1) a bland compromise declaration that commits to action at some time in the future, 2) platitudes from some governments and officials that the meeting was a success and the ground has been laid for further progress later, and 3) frustration, finger-pointing, and condemnation from environmental groups at the seeming paralysis and “lack of political will”—a favorite mot du jour.

Meantime, Kyoto has expired, commitments have unraveled and the likelihood of a fresh international agreement hovers around nil. As one senior leader who participates in these meetings said to me, “We all know this process is a waste of time. We just don’t know how to stop it.”

Even worse, these international negotiations have moved a step beyond being unproductive to being actually counterproductive. In the US, they provide fodder for the anti-climate movement to argue that climate mitigation is something that is foisted on the US people by other nations and must be resisted. In Europe, we now have senior government advisers arguing that Europe should abandon its leadership position in climate mitigation, as the “leading by example” approach is simply making Europe uncompetitive. China is naturally resentful of the West trying to tell it what to do—and having Western journalists point fingers when negotiations fall apart. Nations at risk from climate change are angry and frustrated with the lack of progress. In general, these negotiations have created a poisonous atmosphere.

Negotiation is no longer meaningful

We must abandon the idea of an international, legally binding emissions target. It’s a delusion. It will not happen in the foreseeable future, and negotiations carried out in the context of such a target generate antagonism and defensiveness rather than co-operation. Many delegations no longer come to these talks armed with constructive suggestions. Rather, some focus on pushing others to make concessions while others simply want to make sure that nothing gets written that could harm their national interests. The negative impact of this goes beyond bland statements and paralysis to generating suspicion, mistrust, antagonism and casting of blame this way and that. The endless public condemnations emerging from environmental groups further increase the negative ambiance and governments’ siege mentality.  In such an atmosphere, no meaningful progress is possible.

From negotiation to dialog

Our overwhelming need is not for a legally binding agreement but, first of all, for an atmosphere of positive co-operation. We can achieve this—over time—by converting these UN-sponsored meetings into conferences of achievement. Government delegations should be invited to share with others what they have done right, how they have done it, what they have learned, and what they are planning to achieve further progress. Other governments can take whatever they want from these experiences and adapt them to their own circumstances. Small groups of countries whose interests may coincide can, if they wish, form formal alliances to work together to achieve progress. Larger, wealthier countries can offer help and support in technology transfer and financial assistance on a bilateral basis (something already agreed, in principle, in Doha). These conferences can become deal-making conferences where everyone can take what they wish in an atmosphere that is focused on positive achievement, where nobody is called out as the culprit, and where no attempts are made to hold individual countries’ feet to the fire. Environmental organizations that wish to participate in these meetings also need to change their rhetoric from one of blame and complaint to one of encouragement, celebration of achievements—however small—and the provision of support for new initiatives.

This approach will not satisfy many who think it means there will be no measurable targets, no “deliverables” that we can hold people to, etc., etc., etc.. Yet, the current process has not only failed to achieve either meaningful target setting or any mitigation in emissions, it has ensured that the atmosphere has become so poisonous that neither will ever be achieved.

UN climate efforts versus global CO2. (Image courtesy of Vancouver Observer)

Going forward, the first step has to be to transform the culture around climate change from one of shrill complaining and adversarial negotiation to one of dialog. From a culture of guilt and finger-pointing to one of a shared desire to achieve progress—albeit in steps and asymmetrically. I would ask those who argue that the problem is far too urgent for this kind of co-operative approach, to honestly assess the results achieved by the alternative and why anyone believes that an approach that, as the above figure shows, has manifestly failed for the best part of two decades will miraculously succeed tomorrow—or in 2015.

This post was first published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review.