Is it time for a change of approach to the climate change negotiations?

June 23, 2015

Posted by: Frances Lawson

In a highly divisive arena where common ground remains at a premium, one area of agreement among all the actors involved is that COP21 needs to be presented as a success. It is therefore easy to find positive stories, some real, some spin, proclaiming the progress made and extolling the commitment of the international community to reaching an ambitious agreement in Paris.

Two things that the negotiations do not lack are good intentions and effort. There is no longer a debate among world leaders or their deputies about the importance of climate change – the science has silenced any such scepticism. The unity of willpower has also seen considerable time being invested in the negotiations over the past 23 years since the Framework Convention was signed in 1992, with increasing levels of effort in recent years.

Despite 23 years of good intentions and effort, however, it is sobering to look at where the world has got to in its efforts to tackle climate change. Despite the Convention’s original objective of avoiding dangerous anthropogenic climate change, that very same danger looms larger than ever over two decades later. Global emissions have continued to rise, as have scientific predictions as to the amount of warming that the world may experience if current emissions pathways continue. In other words, twenty Conferences of the Parties, hundreds of negotiating sessions and other meetings and a convoluted legal architecture have failed to set us on the path to achieving what was intended in 1992.

Perhaps it is therefore time to reflect on whether the form of the international climate change negotiations may be hindering the realisation of the regime’s objective. Perhaps the word ‘negotiation’ is part of the problem. Negotiation is inherently adversarial – it involves parties focusing on their own self-interest more than on meeting a shared objective. In negotiation, parties keep their cards close to their chest, they seek first and foremost to achieve wins for themselves. In the pursuit of narrow self-interest, inevitably the needs of others, or even common aims, are relegated to a secondary level.

Contrast this with a mediation approach. In a mediation, a specialist mediator helps the parties to engage in ‘win-wins’, with more of a collaborative, problem-solving approach that focuses on identifying synergies, areas of agreement and common interest so that the headline problem that has brought the different parties together is resolved. The current negotiations have facilitators who try to do this, but the overall approach remains one of ‘facilitated negotiation’ rather than of true mediation. Perhaps, therefore, as much as the Parties are committed to reaching agreement on their common climate goal, the ‘hard-bargaining’ and ‘positional’ approach inherent in negotiation techniques is preventing this by relegating the shared interest in tackling climate change into second place behind Parties’ more immediate priorities.

Whether or not more of a mediation approach is the answer, or part of the answer, to unblocking the recurrent impasses in the climate change negotiations, the fact remains that the current approach is not able to deliver what the world needs. Only by questioning that approach and giving serious consideration to alternatives are we likely to move from good intentions and earnest effort into the actual results that we all wish to see.

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