November 30th, 2012
10:49 AM ET

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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Topics: Climate

soundoff (7 Responses)
  1. Question Everything

    I think all of us would pay much more attention to the so called climate change issue is scientist would stop changing their data to win grants to continue their research. Tell me more about the mini ice age from about 1200 to the late 1800's and how it effects current data collection.
    Tell me how I can trust the research. Too many have been found to change data to make it fit their theories. Until then I will take a nap.

    November 30, 2012 at 12:06 pm | Reply
  2. deniz boro

    Seems like a nice annual outing. Wish they would do it in one of the disaster-stroken zones. Recently there is a lot to chose from. Say how'bout a nice Venetian boat ride... Or a watered PUB visit in the old city of London... Or a rather stormy spring get to gather in and around the Big Apple.

    November 30, 2012 at 5:17 pm | Reply
  3. deniz boro

    Corrections... Spring was a Freudian slip... I ment fall.

    November 30, 2012 at 5:18 pm | Reply
  4. Raajvir Parmar

    I believe that at this point climate change is at a critical point; figures of ice melts both polar and glacial both confirm that 2012 will be the hottest year on record. The international community is not serious in matters of climate change. there may be an improvement if the United Nations employs a group of scientist to countries and demand that they meet certain standards of energy efficiency or they could incur penalties or sanctions similar to how countries with newly acquired nuclear energy. I believe that in order to achieve necessary change drastic steps must be taken now. It may be true that the nature of the United States current dismay maybe fiscal but to ignore long term inevitibilities such as climate chane would be a true disastrous mistake.

    December 3, 2012 at 2:06 pm | Reply
  5. deniz boro

    Parmar, the question here is the lack of cooperation in between schools or areas. The human kind should not suffer because of some academic gibirish. I do believe this is some sort of cicle of the solar system which the scientist do not have records of and so can not make an educated guess of. I do not believe the ozone levels brought this about. I just wish that the big heads in all scientific areas would stop bragging and asking for the blood of the next academic man in the line and THINK together. For a short term plan; and, a long term plan. And states may use every motivation (including whips) to encourage and motivate them. Rather than hiding facts.

    December 8, 2012 at 9:07 pm | Reply
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