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Have International Climate Negotiations Outlived Their Usefulness?

When I talk about the climate process to the uninitiated, they always insist that there has to be a better way. The trouble is, there may not be.
Visitors at the Indian pavilion at COP21 in Paris, France, in December of 2015.

Visitors at the Indian pavilion at COP21 in Paris, France, in December of 2015. 

It's been two and half years since representatives of nearly 200 countries gathered in Paris and, to great fanfare, produced the world's first global climate agreement. Here is a short and disheartening summary of what has happened in the world's international climate negotiation process since then:

  • A year after Paris, countries sent delegates to Marrakech, Morocco, to start work on a set of rules for implementing the aspirational goals agreed to in 2015. But the presidential election of climate skeptic Donald Trump in the United States—which happened during the summit—set negotiators back on their heels. Talks sputtered to a close, with most countries agreeing to "reaffirm" the goals from Paris, and vowing to stick together despite new doubts about the U.S.'s role.
  • The next big climate summit took place last November in Bonn, Germany, where negotiators grappled with the U.S.'s formal withdrawal from the 2015 Paris Agreement almost six months earlier. The centerpiece of the negotiations was an agreement to start work on a "dialogue" in 2018, to assess where the process stood more than two years after Paris.
  • The first major multilateral climate talks of 2018—11 days of inter-sessional meetings—concluded in Bonn in May. The talks broke down over financial issues, leaving most of the formal work on the Paris rulebook and the latest dialogue unaddressed. In the end, countries managed to agree to schedule a new round of talks in September in Bangkok, a last-ditch effort to make headway before the COP24 year-end summit in Poland.

Anyone want to place a bet on whether Bangkok or Poland will produce a major breakthrough? Me neither.

Even at their best, international, multilateral negotiations—whether focused on climate change, trade, poverty, pollution, or refugees—move infuriatingly, excruciatingly slow. To longtime observers, even the phrase "incremental progress" sounds ambitious. I've been covering the climate negotiation process since 2000, and there are articles I wrote back at the start where whole sections are still accurate, including many of the details.

"The worst thing about the multilateral negotiation process is that a small country like Djibouti has the same voice as a big country like the United States," Yvo de Boer told me in the high-profile run-up to the 2009 climate summit in Copenhagen, when he was executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. "And the best thing about the multilateral negotiation process is that a small country like Djibouti has the same voice as a big country like the United States."

De Boer’s five-year tenure as the U.N.'s top climate change official ended when he stepped down shortly after the breakdown of the massive, overly ambitious climate talks in Copenhagen. Those talks still stand as the world's lone attempt to come up with a binding, global climate deal. (The Kyoto Protocol was binding but focused only on action from industrialized countries; the Paris Agreement includes all countries but is not binding.) It took six more years, and more than two-dozen rounds of multilateral talks, to agree on the text that emerged from Paris.

When I talk about the climate process with the uninitiated, I almost always hear something that amounts to, "There has to be a better way."

The trouble is, there may not be.

"The Paris Agreement created a strong and transparent framework with targets to reduce emissions," says Duncan Marsh, a former U.S. climate negotiator now working as an independent climate consultant. "Now, after Paris, action is being taken on the national level, or more locally, or in specialized forums focused on reducing emissions from energy, or agriculture, or transport, or any other sector."

But even if most of the heavy lifting on reducing emissions is taken at the national or sub-national level in the future, or in specialized forums, Marsh and others say that the UNFCCC will still be required to play a central role in defining the rules and goals that guide climate action.

There's the added problem that smaller, poorer countries—like Djibouti, to use de Boer's example—almost always resist shifting decision-making into smaller, more selective negotiations where they might be excluded and/or have less of a voice. But with so many countries insisting on their priorities in the full process, it can become unwieldy and inefficient.

"These large forums, whether on climate change, trade, or in other areas, become black holes that suck in more and more until they threaten to collapse under their own mass," as de Boer, now a private consultant with SRI-Executive, told me in late May. "When I first started working on climate change, back in 1994, we were 500 hippies in a conference center. Compare that to Paris climate summit, which had 40,000 attendees and cost the French government something like $120 million."

"There's a curb of usefulness these things go through, and after a certain point they can lose their purpose," de Boer says.

Christiana Figueres is probably still the global face of climate negotiations, two years after stepping down as head of the UNFCCC. Figueres took charge after de Boer's departure, led the process through the Paris Agreement, and remains a staunch supporter of multilateralism as a forum for tackling big, global problems. Still, she says that, for a major negotiation process to remain relevant, it has to evolve.

"The multilateral process is the only way to address the issues and priorities, not just of every nation but also of every stakeholder," Figueres, who now heads Global Optimism, a climate advocacy group, tells Pacific Standard.

"Yes, the process can be very slow and complicated, but with time it also becomes inevitable," Figueres says. She says it is imperative for negotiators to avoid the temptation of what she calls "artificial simplification": her term for shortcut or pie-in-the-sky solutions, like banking on technological breakthroughs or focusing on the actions of only a small group of major polluting nations.

"As hard as it sounds, we have to embrace the complexity," Figueres says. "The negotiation process will only work if everyone is involved, if everyone has a role in the outcome."

Or as a friend, now retired, who has followed the climate negotiation process in various capacities for more than 30 years, likes to tell me (with a nod to Winston Churchill): "Multilateralism is the worst way address global problems," he says, "except for all the others."

One benefit of the global summits is that they raise public awareness around climate change. According to a research team at the University of Colorado headed by Max Boykoff, there is a clear trend toward greater media coverage of climate change accompanying high-profile U.N. summits. Starting with only marginal global attention in 2000, the team's research has shown a gradual but steady increase in coverage since then, with a huge spike around the 2009 Copenhagen summit, the next biggest one for Paris in 2015, and more mild spikes around other summits, or climate-related developments like natural disasters attributed to climate change.

"We don't have data to prove this, but I suspect that, as the number of times the media refers to climate change rises, so does the sophistication of the average news report, and so does public understanding of the topic," Boykoff says. "It's difficult to quantify that kind of change, but that doesn't mean it's insignificant."

Cindy Baxter, a veteran advocate of climate action who first became involved in the process in the early 1990s, makes a similar point regarding the value of international talks, no matter how painfully slow they might be.

"Every time you see delegates arguing back and forth about a punctuation mark in some negotiating text, you want to pull your hair out," Baxter says. "But you have to look at it from another perspective. There is more going on than is apparent. These days you have representatives from energy companies, insurance companies, transport companies, bankers. You have environmental groups, students, scientists, political figures, film stars. And while these debates are going on, everyone's in the corridors talking and comparing notes, working out strategies.

"Are things moving fast enough to avoid the worst impacts of climate change? I don't know. I worry it won't be enough," Baxter goes on. "But they are moving. And even if that's not always because of what's going on in the meetings, it's surely happening because of the meetings."