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Climate change abatement and small countries

Published on 01 December 2012
Updated on 05 April 2024

In a recent blog Katharina writes: “As much as “one state, one vote” rules or methods of consensus decision-making aim at giving the impression of resulting in a decision among equals, this is simply not the case. To anyone involved in diplomacy this statement is akin to a truism.

It is as true for the climate change negotiations currently underway in the form of the 18th Conference of the Parties (COP) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Doha, Qatar, as it is for most international negotiations. In case of climate change negotiations, this lack of equity is especially problematic though. Those who are most affected by climate change and are least likely to have the resources to adapt to it are also those with the least power at the negotiation table”.

This statement leaves me puzzled: why should “one country one vote” be a useful criterion in Climate Change abatement negotiations?

Climate change is a fiendishly complex issue. To over-simplify matters, let’s assume that sea-level rise is the only expected effect (the “equity” aspects Katharina refers to are all evident in this more restricted setting already). Sea level rise as a threat to the livelihood of small islans states has been in the forefront of previous negotiating rounds. In fact it has been argued that small island states have an enforceable right to have sea level rise stopped (whether it can be achieved is another matter).

Sea level rise is a global phenomenon. Before it affects the Maldives, Vanuatu or Nauru, just to give a few examples, the rising sea level might destroy Venice. Should Venice be at the negotiating table? Swaths of lands in the Bangladesh delta system are currently affected: should these people be at the negotiating table? If one is to judge by the “effects”, one would have to argue that they do. A millenarian civilization – UNESCO World Heritage – is at risk in Venice. Millions may be displaced in Bangladesh, and their “way of life” be destroyed. Priorities would need to be established on the basis of objective criteria like timing, scope of the danger, or uniqueness of the loss.

Venice and Italy may have the means, but surely Bangladesh does not have enough means to deal with the effects. So “lack of means” is not a good criterion to favor “small states” either.

Let’s move on: is there a right to “status quo” or just a right to “compensation” for the damage? The general legal rule is “compensation”; one may top it off with triple punitive damage where negligence or malevolence is involved. Strictly speaking, compensation encompasses only the cost of moving to the next-best alternative people would be willing to accept on the basis of current preference patterns. This may deflate claims substantially.

Compared to the resources needed for effective climate change abatement compensation for “small countries” like small island states might be an affordable, nay even a good solution. It would not satisfy my sense of fairness though: preferential or priority treatment  would be “jumping the queue” – a major moral issue we encounter in helping refugees.

Except for Antarctica and a few scattered rocks on the high seas, all land is part of one state or the other, small or large. The appurtenance of outlaying islands is a contingent fact: some belong to big states, some are independent. Such a historical contingency hence seems to me a dubious criterion for setting priorities in matters that affect the globe as a whole. I’d be wary of holding up the principle of consensus for its own sake in this context.

There are collateral aspects to be kept in mind. Decision taking by consensus is a way to avoid free-rides. Its flip-side is the possibility for the “last one” to hold up consensus until it is bought off – either in specie, or by making its needs an unwarranted priority. Beyond (justified) safeguarding the interests of “small countries” their power over consensus may be misused to force a consensus on policies that neither reflect the overall consensus in the negotiating room (a workable compromise) nor might be the best for everyone under the circumstances (ideal policies). There may have been suspicion of this kind in another setting, when NGOs to whom the representation of a few poor countries has been delegated, destroyed consensus not so much to foster the interests of the countries concerned, but push their own partisan agenda.

In the case of climate change, furthermore, “holding out” by small states may be counterproductive. Their attitude might become a welcome excuse for large countries to delay their commitments to abatement (or it might be a welcome distraction from the tight negotiating schedule, lowering the quality of the outcome). It also would render belated compensation to the “small states” more difficult to quantify. Retro-activity is seldom granted.

I confess to feeling stumped. I don’t know how to deal with the conundrum. Pragmatically, an early agreement to compensation would seem to be a feasible “second best” solution – a case for “early harvesting”. Steadfastly holding up the “one country one vote” principle in a matter as weighty as climate change abatement may delay consensus before the tipping point has been reached; this would be regrettable for all as well as self-defeating for “small countries”.

Any thoughts on this matter would be welcome…

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