Setting the Stage for Climate Negotiations
by Marissa Knodel and Omar Malik
This month, a group of enthusiastic Yale students will take part in the ongoing drama of climate change negotiations in Doha, Qatar. They will participate in the 18th Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the global stage where countries have been meeting to tackle climate change since 1992. While the experience will be new for the students, seasoned diplomats are prepared for a familiar scene: from Cancun to Durban to Doha, efforts to mitigate the adverse impacts of climate change and prevent harm to millions of vulnerable people around the world have instead turned into deliberations over the process itself.
Even if developed countries were in full compliance with their Kyoto Protocol greenhouse gas mitigation pledges, the global average temperature would only be reduced by 0.03°C by 2100. It turns out that this would not be enough to prevent severe economic, environmental, social, political, and cultural consequences from being felt around the world. Small island nations, in particular, will face existential threats that include off-island migration and the massive displacement of people. Failure to reach agreement threatens to render the UNFCCC a mere rhetorical aspiration.
The Doha conference presents an opportunity to buck the intractability of the negotiations. At the previous COP in Durban, countries declared that they would “raise the level of ambition”, and, at the same time, they created an open-ended structure for future agreements. The future agreement, to be negotiated by 2015, may either be a “protocol, legal instrument or outcome with legal force” and will start to become formulated at Doha. The concept of “common but differentiated abilities” isn’t mentioned in the Durban Platform, however, meaning that the official division between developed and developing countries isn’t as clear as it once was in Kyoto Protocol and the UNFCCC. This opens up a potential avenue for change. In the words of the climate change scholar Daniel Bodansky, “[The Durban Platform] is an empty vessel that can be filled with whatever content the parties choose.” All in all, the future pathway of negotiations remains uncertain.
Last month, we visited met with UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figures, who shared some of her insights as to the keys for success in Doha:
- The negotiations in Doha are an opportunity for countries to extend the Kyoto Protocol and will help pave the way for a new treaty regime;
- Consumers, civil society, and the private sector must play important roles in reaching the low-carbon economy;
A closed-room conversation with Ms. Figueres gave us a chance to ask frank questions that were of interest to the up-and-coming diplomats in the room. She started off with a discussion of where we currently are at in the negotiation process, noting that progress has been made despite the fact that movement has been, in her words, “excruciatingly slow.” However, she was cautiously optimistic overall and thought that the future offers a critical chance to change the psychology of the UNFCCC process; participants must go from a perception of “burden-sharing” to one of “opportunity-sharing.” At the next conference, a Doha Amendment will be needed to bring about the “seamless continuity” of the climate regime for all countries, including a second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol.
Ms. Figueres also advocated a more decentralized and approach to solving the climate problem. She told us that we can’t leave all of this work to governments—consumers, civil society, and the private sector are essential to making the new low-carbon economy a success. She urged us to change our personal habits by re-evaluating our transportation means, electricity demands, and purchasing choices. As our time with her drew to a close, she called on all of us to take personal responsibility and holistically change our carbon-consumptive lifestyles. “Move it!” she said, as she banged on the table. “This country is paralyzed! The problem is going to be in your laps.”
Though most citizens will not have the opportunity to attend an international climate change negotiation or meeting, they may nevertheless wield power through influence on politicians, delegates, and the nature of the negotiations. Looking ahead to Doha, nations face the option of negotiating an outcome more ambitious than the Durban Platform that takes the commitment to prevent dangerous climate change seriously or continue the pattern of “a meta-negotiation about what to negotiate.” By raising public awareness, consciousness, and activism, participants at both the “top” and “bottom” hope to make people rather than process the focus of negotiations.
 William D. Nordhaus & Jospeh Boyer, Warming the World: Economic Models of Global Warming, 152-153 (2001).
 Working Group II of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. p. 845-870. Accessed online.
 The Durban Platform (CP.17), Paragraph 6.
 The Durban Platform (CP.17), Paragraph 4.
 Daniel Bodansky, “The Durban Platform Negotiations: Goals and Options,” Viewpoints, Harvard Project on Climate Agreements. July 2012.