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Should You Pay Attention to the UN Climate Talks?

by Michael Levi
November 30, 2012


The annual United Nations (UN) climate talks are rarely a pretty sight. The typical script is fairly reliable. Negotiators typically arrive at each summit with mostly realistic goals. But diplomats and those who seek to influence them spend the first week or so ratcheting up demands and accusations, in part for leverage, but at least as much in order to make themselves look good and their adversaries appear villainous. Members of the media (if they’re paying attention) report that the talks appear set for disaster. Meanwhile, away from the spotlight, negotiators quietly hash through the substantive tasks at hand. Eventually, in the middle of the second week, higher level officials arrive. Occasionally, important differences prove impractical to resolve, and the summit collapses. Far more often, the parties cobble something modest together, apparently snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.

This process looks – and perhaps more importantly feels – very different depending on how much attention you pay to what’s going on. If you start with the previews, ignore the roller coaster, and check back in at the end, you’ll often conclude that the summit has had modest impact but little more; the outcome will often be pretty close to what sober analysts were expecting before the talks began.

If, instead, you follow the talks diligently from beginning to end, you can end up with a different take. The theatrical lows that typically dominate the news as the talks proceed up have a way of resetting observers’ expectations. Instead of the manageable summit that once appeared to be in store, by the time the end of the last week of the talks rolls around, you have the makings of a train wreck. Then – miraculously! – the negotiators pull something together. (I don’t mean to belittle the task — diplomacy is tough.) Compared to the disaster that appeared to be in store only days (perhaps hours) earlier, you have a spectacular success.

Which one of these vantage points gives observers a more accurate view? I’m not entirely sure. I was struck by the difference last year, when instead of attending the talks as I had in Cancun and Copenhagen the previous two years, I stayed home from the Durban summit. My ultimate take was less intense, and less positive, than my reactions to the Cancun and Copenhagen talks. Most of that, no doubt, reflects different expectations and outcomes for the three summits. (At least I like to think so; I’d be an awfully unreliable analyst otherwise.) But I can’t help suspecting that part of it is explained by the fact that I didn’t go through the Durban roller coaster. I was comparing the outcome more to my initial expectations, rather than to whatever mood and new expectations immediately preceded the conclusion of the talks.

So should you pay attention to the climate summit? As a general matter, I still think that the answer is yes. The shadow boxing and public accusations may have little impact on the ultimate outcome, but they matter in themselves. They reveal the fundamental beliefs of many of the important participants. And since the climate talks are as much a contest for international public opinion as they are an exercise in negotiating agreements, the public battle matters. But when next Friday (or Saturday morning) rolls around, and you look at whatever the talks have produced, try to ignore most of what’s happened during the two weeks since the talks opened, and compare the outcome to whatever the real goals and expectations going in were. That’s the best way to really understand how much the climate talks have accomplished.

Post a Comment 2 Comments

  • Posted by Oliver

    I think I would agree with the view that the outcome is usually more or less predictable and that most of the rest is just for dramatic effect.

    However, with respect to the broader question I think people tend to misunderstand what can realistically emerge from climate talks like these. Ultimately, politicians care so much more about domestic realities of getting clean energy legislation and emissions targets passed than about any deal that they may hash out with other countries on paper that the main game is always about internal energy politics in the big emitting countries.

    So I think people should focus less on Doha and more on what can concretely be accomplished in Washington, Beijing, Brussels, New Dehli, Moscow, Rio de Janeiro, etc.

  • Posted by well

    World population will continue to grow, that population will strive for a better and energy intensive comfortable life style
    across the globe. No legislation , carbon racket or propaganda can stop these facts or stop peoples drive towards a better
    and easier life. Acceptance of these basic facts better be absolute as it would be a honest start to understanding this
    subject, resistance is futile.

    No industrially developing country in its right mind will pay to switch to an expensive unreliable energy source and thereby
    give up on its devlopment and pulling millions or their people out of poverty in the process. Developing countries priorities
    are much higher on things we in west take for granted , climate is not it. They will not give up whatever competitive
    advantage they have over west by ditching cheap fuel sources. There is not enough money in the west to pay the third world
    countries to live like some eco low energy use theme park and give up on comfortable high energy use lifestyle.

    Drive for cheap energy sources whatever they may be , will only accelerate regardless whatever happens to climate or not.

    So UN worldwide agreements on this mean very little if anything at all.

    So what can be done? R&D needs be done towards finding sources of fuel that pack the same or better energy than say, a
    pound of coal , gallon of oil , pound of uranium, for the same cost or cheaper , with same reliability or better. Then it will
    adopted without a single propaganda advertisement.
    R&D required takes a lot of money and results are never assured. Where in our countries systems such projects with low oversight till something is prime time ready can be setup? I suggest DOD or DARPA type projects. Private sector will be
    just not work for this, as risks are too high and rewards are not assured enough for investors to pour the kind of money
    needed . Till that time plant trees if you are worried about co2 .

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