Climate Conference Cacophony, or How Good Intentions Go Bad When the Process is Rigged to Fail

Recently delegates from around the world gathered in Bonn, Germany, for a UN conference to discuss how the nations of the world can reach a “new, universal agreement on climate change.” This agreement is meant to outline how nations will work together to reduce greenhouse gases and limit, to the degree still possible, the worst effects of global climate change. These are good, laudable goals. But as you may suspect, there is a catch.

The major goal of the Bonn conference is editing a document negotiated in February by over 190 nations. The hope is that this document can form that basis of a planned agreement in Paris this December, establishing a successor to the 1992 Kyoto Protocol. But before all that can happen, the agreement needs a bit of work. This current Bonn editing session will be followed by another one in September, then another in October. They apparently think this is going to need a lot of editing.

The reason this will need so much editing is the flawed process that created it. According to NPR, build trust and goodwill negotiators could throw in any proposed text they wanted. The result is 90 pages long—a jumbled patchwork of ideas…

How bad it is? You can read it all yourself here (PDF). But consider these short snippets to get an idea of the document’s epic incoherence:

bonn language

Apparently “triangular cooperation schemes” are a thing now (can hexagonal schemes be far behind?). It goes on:

bonn language

Had enough? It goes on like this for ninety more pages.

Having read these pages myself (a sacrifice so you can save your brain cells from the experience, gentle reader), I think it’s safe to say that if you wanted to obfuscate the urgency of climate change and befuddle the well-intentioned with meaningless lawyerese, if your goal was to delay action on climate change with the pretense of meaningful agreement, then you could not have done better than this.

French Ecology minister Ségolène Royal agreed with this sentiment, noting, “the weight of UN negotiations is such that we carry on as if nothing was wrong.” She also called the talks “completely inadequate.”

Something is deeply broken in the process that creates such a document. But some will argue that the process has to be this way, that the purposefully opaque rhetoric of lawyerese is a necessary vice. Some may argue this, but to me it is clearer that what we need is a different way of creating such agreements. And certainly a different process than inviting 190 countries to edit the same Google Doc, apparently all at the same time, in a mad, chaotic scrum. Such processes may seem like radical democracy, but their product is instead mere cacophony, in which no country’s interests are served.

What is really missing is genuine decisive leadership. But today that elusive quality seems as rare as rain in California or cool temperatures in India

Short Bio

Steve Newton is a former Programs and Policy Director at NCSE.