Rules of the Game: A Guide To The UN Climate Talks
Rules of the Game: A Guide To The UN Climate Talks
By Tipping Point Collective /
Dec 1, 2014

Climate change negotiations have been going on longer than the world wide web has existed. But while the internet has progressed from a dozen or so green and black html pages to the lifeblood of modern civilization, the UNFCCC has… not.

Twenty years seems like it should be enough time for the world to figure out what the hell actually goes on in the negotiations. But the process is really complicated — it started out as a labyrinth and over the years has only become less navigable to anyone that doesn't dedicate a serious amount of time to learning the jargon.

Journalists trying to talk about climate change negotiations

As with any complex and protracted story, most media outlets have not done a fantastic job of situating the negotiations in their broader historical, social and political context. For example, it is fashionable to bash China and India as “emerging polluters,” while largely ignoring their huge populations, relatively low historical emissions, and the fact much of their pollution is really Western pollution shipped overseas. The result is a poorly informed public with a stunted understanding of the real issues.

Not that all supposed “experts” are any wiser. Within the talks there are many people who are critical and quick to complain when negotiations go wrong, but they rarely understand (let alone communicate) the myriad reasons why. Some critics get fed up andabandon the process, condemning the whole show on their way to save the world by dying alone in an abandoned school bus in Alaska. But many more come back year after year with the weinerish refrain “this is our one shot to save the world,” and a bunch of unambitious, unspecific demands of governments. Then there are the members of the UN fan club, who — due to a severe case of Stockholm Syndrome — see the point of the process as the process itself, rather than the outcome.

As the talks trundle onward to the “big moment” in Paris next December, it’s about time we got a few things clear about the UNFCCC. Here, for your benefit, we present 10 unwritten rules of climate change negotiations. Like any set of rules, there are exceptions, and the possibility of changing them always exists. But if you want to play the game of international climate change politics, you need to keep these rules in mind.

1. The US doesn't play fair

US head honcho Todd Stern, circa 2011

Well that’s a surprise. Seriously, only an imbecile would expect any US government to act in good faith, on any issue. In any place. Ever. People always say that the Americans hate games they’re no good at. Seeing as how they really, really suck at the emissions reductions game, they’d rather stick to what they know: coercion, manipulation, and general political playground bullying. Just one example: the US government (during Clinton) did everything they could to make the Kyoto Protocol as weak as possible, only to pull out altogether when it couldn’t pass in Congress (during G.W. Bush).

Team USA’s modus operandi

However, positive PR on climate change matters a bit more to Obama than it did to Bush, so these days the US wants to avoid being seen as the bad guy. They lurk in the shadows and let other countries (hello, Canada) make fossil fools of themselves publicly, all the while carrying on their clandestine bribery and bullying antics, pressuring problematic developing country negotiators by making threatening calls to their capital cities. Oh, andusing the NSA to spy on other countries during the talks. Nearly forgot about that.* The reasons behind all this climate skullduggery are, of course, tied up in more general objectives of the US government: to protect the interests of big corporations (especially the fossil fuel industry) and maintain their hegemonic position as world superpower. So, you know, the same reasons they invaded Iraq and Afghanistan, organised coups in Latin America, and prop up dictators everywhere. (And they’re not the only ones).

2. The US and EU red lines will not be crossed

Given its aforementioned shittiness and status as world superpower, the US rarely has to concede any of its core demands. To a lesser extent, the same is true for the EU* and to an even lesser extent, the BASIC countries (Brazil, South Africa, India, and China, who in actual fact do back down on their red lines).

A global agreement is impossible without their political buy in, and so it follows that their “red lines” define the limits of what’s politically possible within the negotiations. These red lines, of course, are not static or permanent. They may change naturally over time, and they can be pushed and re-drawn — but only with lots of pressure at a national level rather than the international (although armed insurrection in the UNFCCC remains an option).

This would make for an interesting COP

Even though there is a coalition of governments from 134 developing countries called the “G77” that often take strong stances against the red lines of powerful players, when push comes to shove (and it often does) they are regularly forced to stand down. The ability to withhold development aid is a powerful tool in the arsenal of “divide and rule.”

*The EU will often cleverly manoeuvre the talks with the US, coming out strong at the beginning in order to be able to propose a “compromise deal” at the very end that is really what they wanted all along, all the while looking like the good guys.

3. Negotiations reflect and reinforce geopolitical power imbalances

When you employ a tactic of divide and conquer, it really helps to identify where you can drive a wedge. In the setting of climate change negotiations, those countries well practiced in colonization have to divide the big bloc of developing countries that is of course not homogenous in any sense, and so is vulnerable to division along certain lines. Certain countries in two particular sub-groups, the Small Islands (AOSIS) and the Least Developed Countries (LDCs), have been used time and again by the EU and US to undermine the overall unity and integrity of the “developing world.” While the guy in front of the TV cameras may be “representing” a small island, an African state, or an LDC, that doesn’t mean he’s speaking in the interests of who he supposedly represents, (any more than developed country leaders represent the interests of the vast majority of their people). He might actually not even hold citizenship or live in the country he represents. He might live in DC or Brussels where he buddies up with northern negotiators. Out of the frame of the shot could very well be an EU or US “advisor” or donor holding up the talking points.

It’s hard to blame some AOSIS or LDC countries for going along with this. They lack the political clout to convince the rich countries to stop pumping all the carbon they can dig up into the atmosphere, and they can’t really fight them. They’re desperate. The waters are rising, the droughts are getting stronger, and the IMF loans don’t repay themselves. They’re having to redirect funds from other priorities to deal with climate impacts. All that vulnerability opens them up to being leveraged, and the old colonizers don’t think twice about doing so. Fuck all finance is flowing through the UN climate funds, so often countries take the pitiful bilateral aid in return for supporting the EU position. It’s what you would do too. You gotta eat. Ultimately, the UNFCCC is the vehicle of carbon colonialism.

4. Negotiations are not about stopping climate change

It might sound counter-intuitive, but climate negotiations are mostly about other things like trade, development, and national sovereignty. If the negotiations were only about stopping climate change, and doing it fairly, the conversation would look more like this, and we’d be talking about bans on new fossil fuel projects. If they were about financing the transformational change needed, we’d be talking about transferring trillions in climate finance instead of creating “enabling environments.” But instead we’re talking about the wishful thinking “pledge-and-review” approach, phasing out fossil fuels IN THE 22ND CENTURY and making as much money as possible off the preposterous carbon markets in the meantime.

Seriously, how did we fuck this up so bad?

5. Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed

This is true for most pieces of international environmental law. Like male underwear models, it’s all about the package. Climate negotiations are always in a delicate balance as issues are traded off in one area for gains in another. What’s frustrating about this “all-or-nothing” dynamic is that the “nothing” eventuality doesn’t just mean the two weeks of the COP were wasted, but also the months (or years) beforehand, where all the progress was actually made.

What’s more, in order to agree on everything, you don’t need everyone. The decisions that are taken at COPs are not always democratic or open: most of the key points of major outcomes are actually agreed between a few powerful Parties and subsequently shared with the rest of the world (or rammed down their throat as they protest). With so many different conversations going on at once, only those delegations with the human power and training to see the whole picture and be in ten places at once can really participate. More often than not, then, final compromises are made “green room” style in the bar at the nearest Hilton, or in bizarre “huddles” in the final plenary that look like something you’d see in a dancehall in the wee hours.

COP19 concludes with the “Warsaw Huddle”

6. There is no such thing as a neutral facilitator

The first few days of any COP feel like an endless stream of formalities and backslapping: the negotiations an audition, with delegates lining up to read and re-read the line “I would just like to congratulate the chair…”

Former AWG-LCA co-chair, Dan Ryfschneider, taking a moment.

Despite the days on days of accolades, actually being chair of a negotiation isn’t a very fun job. The same can be said of country hosts. Much like a Dominoes Pizza delivery boy, both co-chairs and host countries of meetings are up against the clock. They have to deliver for the sake of their career. If that means mowing over a few kids and running a few stop signs along the way, so be it.

Being appointed co-chair is sometimes a kind of political castration: appointing a negotiator to be the co-chair of an obscure technical group has the co-benefit of shutting them up in their role as a country negotiator. Co-chairs must also be approved by the big players, which means they must ultimately serve the big players’ interests. It’s no wonder so many co-chairs’ texts come back looking an awful lot like what the EU proposed the day before.

Country hosts increasingly must go beyond just providing the streamers and party hats. Nowadays they have to practically write the freaking outcome themselves, though not without the obliging help of the UNFCCC secretariat behind the scenes. No host country wants to be “responsible” for failed negotiations, and will do whatever it takes to ensure an agreement passes, even undermining their own negotiating bloc, and many of their own interests. Under such pressure, it’s nearly impossible to remain a neutral facilitator, and usually ends with dropping the “final agreement” in everyone’s laps with a few hours to read it; and then orchestrating wild applause to drown out the opposition.

7. A bad outcome is preferred to no outcome

See the Clean Development Mechanism

The UNFCCC employs a strict policy of “something is better than nothing,” which would only be more irresponsible if they applied the same attitude towards STDs . Even when the majority of countries oppose or block a shitty outcome (or a “suicide pact” as they called it in Copenhagen) the UNFCCC secretariat and host country are so bent on getting a deal that they will force it down our throats, either ignoring dissenting negotiators or gavelling through a decision while they’re in the bathroom. In the UNFCCC, “no” doesn’t always mean no.

The “something is better than nothing” philosophy, in tandem with the last minute “take-it-or-leave-it” ultimatums, forces countries to agree to a compromised deal that looks nothing like the ideals and demands that they went in with. At times it is better to have nothing at all than nothing good: something to consider as we head to showdown Paris 2015.

8. “Civil society” is just as fucked as government

Who is “civil society?”

You’ll often hear talk of “the civil society perspective” on the negotiations. Given that the UN definition of civil society is everyone who isn’t officially in government it should about this surprisingthat there is no such thing asthe civil society perspective. However, big green NGOs (and the white first world dudes with $200,000 salaries who head them) often claim the civil society voice. But of course NGOs are just one way to organise — one that is often subservient to donor interests — and there are plenty of “informal” or “unincorporated” groups, loose coalitions, and networks whose voices are frequently drowned out. So unless we listen carefully, we rarely hear the perspectives of social movements, who are fighting for their right to self-determination. Really fighting; like, not on a keyboard.

The People’s Climate Front of Judea refuses to work with the Judean People’s Climate Front

There are lots more pretty bullshit aspects of “civil society” at the UNFCCC. Business has its own constituency, which is kind of unnecessary given that they’re already running the whole show, and many significant players within ‘civil society’ are actually on the payroll of powerful governments, sitting in and serving as mouthpieces for those states.

Far and away the most crippling, though, is that we spend all our time fighting among ourselves — bogged down in the politics of “civil society” instead of using that energy to jointly fight the oppressive systems that drive climate change. Civil war is always the most bitter, and the internal divides between the many factions run deep. It’s almost as if the right wing billionaires had paid for that… wait… have they? Aww, shit.

9. The UNFCCC will never die

Footage of Christiana Figueres rehearsing her opening speech for COP20.

Even though you could be forgiven for thinking that the entire world will end in Paris in December 2015, the UNFCCC will indeed go on. It will just shift from negotiating a new treaty to implementing it. The only problem is that, as things now stand, there won’t really be anything to implement, nor any real accountability mechanism if we did have something to implement. (This is a general problem of international environmental law — remember that time Canada just bailed on its international commitments and literally nothing happened?) The UNFCCC will just go on endlessly, propping up the coffee and paper industry of their host city Bonn, while the world burns. The bureaucrats need climate change to justify their continued existence, not to mention use of so much public money. Even if we all walked out again, this time for good, there’s an endless supply of ambassadors’ kids just waiting to populate the offices and negotiating halls with their business-casual attire and smug-fuck attitudes.

10. The amount of real-world shits given is less than zero

If GOD doesn’t care, we’re really fucked

The hardest truth of all is this: the percentage of the world population that knows what the fuck UNFCCC stands for is about the same percentage of probability we have of avoiding wrecking the entire climate system. Terrifyingly low. For anyone who does give a shit and who believes the science around what the impacts will be, bearing witness to the negotiations is a form of torture. They question it every day. So why do they go on? Nobody would blame them for splitting…

BONUS: Negotiations are an important piece of the bigger puzzle

Earlier we mentioned two extreme factions — fans and critics of the negotiations — within the global climate change movement(s). What we didn’t mention is that they have let the UNFCCC define what the movement is for them. To them, if you will, the UNFCCC represents God, and they spend their time trying to convert others to either believe or not believe. Neither recognizes the process for what it is: an important front in a much larger fight.

As corrupt, frustrating, ridiculous, and inadequate as the negotiations are, they exist, and will keep on existing — advancing harmful policies and paradigms — for a long time. The UNFCCC is like a rash: ignoring it won’t make it go away; it will only make it worse.

If we really want the things we say we want — repayment of climate debt from North to South and deep, equitable emissions cuts — and if we want to have a more than a damage control approach to the false solutions of carbon markets and geoengineering, we have to enter the fray. We have to change the balance of power in order to redefine the terms of debate.

Believing that, it follows that we should treat the UNFCCC as a site of struggle (one among many) that has critical, albeit limited, strategic importance. You need to know the rules in order to play the game. And you need to play the game in order to win. Roll on COP20.

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Rules of the Game: A Guide To The UN Climate Talks