Time to look beyond the UN climate negotiations

By Ruth Greenspan Bell, Barry Blechman | February 9, 2014

Secretary of State John Kerry should be saluted for energizing US policy on climate change and pushing for global progress toward containment of greenhouse gas emissions. The impacts of climate change threaten the balance of nature, food supply, and national security. Kerry ambitiously seeks to be a lead broker in a global climate agreement in Paris in 2015 through the ongoing United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

The Secretary's goal is admirable. The pathway is problematic.

It would be nice to trust that this cumbersome process, involving 195 negotiating parties and a massive number of issues, can deliver emissions reductions. But after 22-plus years of pursuing this process, we are concerned: We see little evidence to support that trust.

A better approach? Break the issues down and diversify negotiating venues and configurations. We need to take successive bites out of this huge challenge. A single global deal is too complex. Let's pursue smaller ones that have a reasonable chance of producing results.

The current logic follows an "if you build it, they will come" model. The thinking is that global standards will prompt change on national and local levels. There is precedent here: The 1972 Stockholm Declaration of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment established commitments to protect the environment. Since then, there have been hundreds of international environmental agreements.

But getting a pact inked doesn't guarantee results. Researchers in the 1990s examined whether the large number of agreements actually protected endangered species or reduced pollution.

Frequently, the actual commitments were fairly trivial, they found, and even high levels of compliance meant little change for the better. In contrast to other areas of international diplomacy, "the history of international environmental diplomacy has been marked by states adopting symbolic or opaque commitments without the intention to implement them fully," concluded David Victor, then at the Austria-based International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

There is precedent for a different, "many bites of the apple" approach to the climate change problem: The decades-long, global effort to halt nuclear proliferation.

Here, again, humanity initially bet on a single negotiating process, called General and Complete Disarmament, involving all members of the United Nations. For 15 years, starting in 1947, the negotiations made no progress in the United Nations while world leaders pretended for political purposes to be concerned about the issue.

The Cuban Missile Crisis made very real the danger of the nuclear arms race. Only at that point did the then-existing nuclear powers—the United States, the former Soviet Union, France, and the United Kingdom—begin to discuss discrete issues and identify common ground. Over time, this focus on smaller goals led to solid, incremental progress.

The first result was the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty, prohibiting nuclear testing in the atmosphere, in space, and under the seas. It fell short of the desired comprehensive ban but ended a grave global health hazard and gave momentum to other negotiations.

Additional issues have since been resolved opportunistically in multilateral, regional, and bilateral arenas. UN negotiations eventually moved from the General Assembly to a smaller specialized body, currently called the Conference on Disarmament, which produced the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention, the 1992 Chemical Weapons Convention, and the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. Simultaneously, various regional venues have flourished to the point that virtually the entire Southern Hemisphere is now nuclear-free.

Overall, the strategy has been successful: Dozens of nuclear powers were once expected by 2000. Instead, there were eight, and it now seems unlikely there will be more than nine as late as 2020.

The history of arms control negotiations between the United States and the Soviet Union or Russia, the countries that control 90 percent of the world's nuclear weapons, could be a model for the handful of countries that produce the most greenhouse gas emissions. More than a dozen agreements over 40 years established communications channels and protocols to avoid accidental nuclear wars. Nuclear weapons stockpiles dropped from about 64,000 warheads worldwide in 1986, at the height of the Cold War, to roughly 17,000 today. 

In sum, why wait for the entire world to be on board if a small number of negotiators can make significant progress?

These efforts have not eliminated all nuclear weapons. But they have made undeniable progress. Significantly, virtually every multilateral nuclear agreement was put in place even though key countries refused to participate. Smaller agreements have a way of creating political pressures and norms that eventually cause others to join.

We can never know, unless we experiment, whether breaking climate change negotiations into smaller bites or developing alternative pathways might reboot the current stalemate. We do know that greenhouse gas emission control demands reliable action—not mere promises—at many governmental and institutional levels.

If studies almost 20 years ago warned against unfettered faith in the UN-brokered, multiparty, top-down model, what is the justification for doing only more of the same? Wouldn't prudence call for hedging this bet?

Secretary Kerry and climate negotiators should consider diversifying their efforts.

Editor's note: This article is cross-published with The Daily Climate, an independent news service covering energy, the environment, and climate change.

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