How Closely Should We Follow U.N. Climate Talks?

By Michael Levi, CFR

Michael Levi is director of the Program on Energy Security and Climate Change at the Council on Foreign Relations. This entry of  Energy, Security and Climate originally appeared here. The views expressed are his own.

The annual United Nations climate talks are rarely a pretty sight. The typical script is fairly reliable. Negotiators generally 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.

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