Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Trouble with Consensus

Aside from public pressure (anywhere outside the U.S.), the greatest motivation for parties to come to some agreement, any agreement on climate change by the end of the negotiations on Friday is the threat inaction poses to the UN itself.

Much has been made of the difficulties inherent in the UN process itself. This morning I heard someone say that it was absurd and unrealistic to expect an agreement of such complexity to be reached when any given country, even ones most Americans have never heard of, can veto the outcome. Absurd perhaps, impractical definitely, but the process remains precisely because it is the only mechanism by which all countries affected are equally represented in negotiations.

The longer negotiations drag on without movement towards some framework agreement (or agreements) being made, the louder the grumblings get about the viability and relevance of the UN negotiation process and the idea of demanding consensus. If there is a fundamental breakdown that leads to parties losing faith in the UN as the appropriate mechanism for forging a deal on climate mitigation, then it is likely that the largest economies will move to work a deal on their own.

There have been suggestions that an easier forum for brokering a deal would be the G20. Maybe it would be easier to stop negotiating in the UN where consensus is required but, of course, this group largely eliminates the need to listen or consider the worlds smallest or least developed economies. The poorest and most vulnerable would get cut out of the process.

Based on the deep fissures of distrust that already exist between rich and poor nations, the growing drumbeat of climate justice demands, and the high stakes involved my guess is that any secondary agreement made that bypasses the UN process would have the potential to polarize and harden all these differences. Bypassing consensus would turn the Copenhagen Accord into a modern-day Treaty of Versailles.

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