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Outing myself as a pessimist? Response to a report on “Advancing Climate Negotiations”

Published on 16 January 2013
Updated on 05 April 2024

There is general agreement that the recent climate change negotiations in Doha were a failure from many perspectives, especially with regards to making progress towards a post-Kyoto regime as well as with making the Green Climate Fund operational.

In the face of this the topic of a recent FIELD (Foundation for International Environmental Law and Development) report that aims at considering various points for “Advancing the climate change negotiations” is more than welcome and much needed.

However, when looking at the various suggestions made there, one almost has to become a pessimist with regards to climate negotiations. Indeed, in the following I think I will out myself as one.  

Science will save us …

The report describes a periodic review process (as agreed at the 16th Conference of the Parties (COP) in Cancun) that aims to look at what is deemed an “adequate temperature goal” as well as the progress made towards that goal. This process as well as the release of the next Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are said to be able to give science a more central place in the UNFCCC process which in turn might help to change political perceptions. I am wondering though, if scientific reports really had that power, why haven’t we seen more progress so far? Moreover, “adequate” is the kind of diplomatic term that leaves much (too much?) wiggle room to the sides.  

If only the leaders got together …

Another point made is the possibility to generate movement in the negotiations through high-level meetings. The UN Secretary-General announced that he will be convening world leaders in 2014 to address climate change. The report argues that top level meetings have the ability to move things forward and possible outcomes can then be fed back into the UNFCCC process. This is a point often cited with regards to a variety of diplomatic negotiation deadlocks (not just climate change). It seems to be based on the assumption that “if only we could bring world leaders together in one room …” The results of such meetings are, in my opinion, dependent on a number of factors outside the negotiations. The fact that world leaders are together in one room does not guarantee a favourable outcome at all. It guarantees photo ops and pre-prepared speeches. But the fact that a meeting is “at the highest level” is not a factor that can be taken to determine outcomes.  COP15 in Copenhagen is such an example. World leaders negotiated until the early morning hours of the last day. Key leaders of the developed and the developing world were sitting together trying to achieve a presentable result. They failed. What can happen when world leaders come together can be heard in the leaked recordings of that meeting. It is surely not a source for encouragement for the future.

Let’s finally get creative and smart …

The report also points to “Creative negotiating approaches, smart use of international law and demonstrations of good faith by developed countries could contribute to unlocking the deadlocks.” While this sounds great, it is a hard task of actual coming up with such instruments. Moreover, creative solutions are one thing, their implementation another. I am sure that during the 20 years f the UNFCCC process many smart diplomats have tried to come up with solutions like the ones alluded to in the above quote. Either they have failed or they were never heard in the first place. It is hard to imagine what is different now that will allow for the generation of creative, smart solutions that satisfy all parties. This brings me to my last point.  

Hoping for doom …

Surprisingly, the report ends on a pessimistic note that could best be summarized with ‘hoping for doom.’ The concluding sentence reads like this: “A more realistic view could be that only large-scale catastrophic events with an evident link to climate change prior to 2015 would create sufficient urgency to overcome the current political inertia.“

Or maybe … focusing on people …

I do find all of this rather discouraging. Even a report entitled “advancing the climate change negotiations” ends on a very pessimistic note. So, where do we go from here? I think to start with we need to think a lot further than the suggestions described here. We might also need to accept that a global and all-encompassing solution is not possible. In that sense we might need to accept failure to move on. The focus should be on improving the lives of people in any way possible and not on keeping a process going at all costs. Maybe that is the real inertia to be overcome.

2 replies
  1. Katharina Hone
    Katharina Hone says:

    Thanks Kevin and Aldo.

    Thanks Kevin and Aldo.
    Aldo, indeed, I am becoming more sceptical of top-down and centralistic approaches. Global climate diplomacy, while still needed, should aim to provide a framework. At the same time, it is becoming much more mainstream to change the focus from the global level to for example domestic climate legislation. (“Domestic climate laws are essential, says UN” https://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2013/jan/13/climate-laws-un).
    Last but not least, good point on free-riding and trust. But as a concept, I don’t “trust” trust. For negotiations, is trust really the appropriate word?

  2. Aldo Matteucci
    Aldo Matteucci says:



    the centralistic top-down approach has failed, you muse. Apart from the fact that in such complex issues directive “planning” is delusion, the core problem is that the approach has placed the “free-rider problem” at the center of the negotiation. It was built on suspicion and generated mistrust in all directions. Bad vibes have destroyed whatever will there was to cooperate – a tenuous plant that has to be nurtured with small recursive steps of good-will and confidence building measures (the Chinese way BTW). Rebuilding trust would seem to me the first priority, not negotiating new targets….

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