• Harry Lloyd

Miniature Politics: are model green conferences any easier?

Updated: Oct 28, 2020

To get a handle on the mammoth complexity of international climate agreements and conferences, IFLA! writer Harry Lloyd went to the CEMS model UNFCCC to see whether a mini version is any more straightforward.

I tell you what I want. You tell me what you want. We meet somewhere in the middle. Could negotiating be simpler?

Yet the names of cities holding climate negotiations over the last twenty years are synonymous with complexity: Copenhagen, Katowice, Paris. The body governing the negotiating process is the monolithic United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). National representations to the UNFCCC along with NGOs, industry groups and the media gather annually in their tens of thousands at a Conference of the Parties (COP).

The words we use to describe the climate emergency matter, and that’s true not just of its portrayal in the public eye, but also at the coalface of state-level efforts to tackle it. Every successful negotiation is achieved through communication between delegates. What linguistic tools do these delegates have at their disposal – what actually works?

Helping to answer some of these questions, a group of Master’s students took part in the CEMS model UNFCCC this May. CEMS is a global alliance of 32 business schools and 65 corporate partners that together deliver the CEMS Master in International Management. The model UNFCCC is the culmination of a module on climate change and policy designed to equip these future business leaders with the skills to tackle climate change during their careers. It was realistic, capturing many of the extraordinary successes and frustrations of the real thing. Now in its eleventh iteration, 180 students from 30 countries were encouraged to arrive at this years host, the University of Cologne, by train. The delegates, roleplaying as 50 countries, had two days to develop their successor to the Paris Agreement. Johanna Bocklet, a PhD student at Cologne and part of the organising team this year, wanted students to be 'passionate, but have some realism' about the negotiations, as there will always be moments of fragility while piecing together the final agreement.

There will always be moments of fragility while piecing together the final agreement

Suggestions for useful vocabularies began early. Professor Marc Bettzüge, also at Cologne, offered the first candidate in his welcome address. ‘[Negotiators] are solving a repeated version of the prisoner’s dilemma’, he noted, ‘and to succeed you need a common commitment and reciprocity’. This dilemma is a game theory experiment where two prisoners decide whether to inform on one another or remain silent, with their actions determining their jail time. Game theory is often invoked in negotiations, and students did collaborate to achieve that common commitment and reciprocity. Those two ideas were often forgotten if negotiations became more complex though, when national interests were threatened and tempers rose. So whether or not they helped guide negotiations seemed to rely on goodwill.

Three working groups then split off for the rest of the weekend, each group focusing on one of three branches of UNFCCC negotiations: mitigation, adaptation and market mechanisms. Two working group chairs compèred efforts in each to reach a draft agreement all parties supported. These included airline industry efforts to cut emissions in market mechanisms, the year of peak emissions in mitigation, and how to define a climate refugee in adaptation. Delegates used the formal register of the UNFCCC, referring to each other as the honourable delegate from India, or Ms Working Group Chair. The formal address ensured at least a surface level of respect. Professor Rolf Wüstenhagen, from the University of St. Gallen who has long been involved with the project, believes it keeps things civil, ‘rather than [delegates] being addressed more informally, or maybe sometimes more emotionally.’

When organised well, the formality helped countries collaborate, if at times painfully. When countries wanted to speak the point had to be approved by the chairs, voiced, and the flurry of replies dealt with from across the floor. During the first day, all working groups decided this strict language hampered efforts. In formal sessions and coffee breaks, groups of delegates gathered and conversation flowed. ‘In many of these negotiations the informal part is at least as important as the formal’ says Wüstenhagen. The more relaxed language allowed delegates to create ideas and solve problems quickly, with one student saying ‘we got everything done in informal sessions, almost nothing in formal ones.’

For all the restrictions of formality, keeping all parties involved and using the same vocabulary led to the strongest agreements

That said, the free and easy registers were not without problems. More than once a group came back from coffee brandishing an agreement, only to find their ‘progress’ had become a smoking ruin because a country they hadn’t included had fundamental objections. For all the restrictions of formality, keeping all parties involved and using the same vocabulary led to the strongest agreements.

Two stories underlined the importance of finding the right vocabulary. In a school near St. Gallen where Wüstenhagen has been to discuss sustainability, he found three young men who dismissed discussions about global warming as left wing, anti-free market agitation. Wüstenhagen worked out that they planned to go into business, and framing climate change in terms of risk to companies brought them into the conversation: ‘that made it a lot harder for them to ignore’.

More than once a group came back from coffee brandishing an agreement, only to find their ‘progress’ had become a smoking ruin because a country they hadn’t included had fundamental objections

The second involved Rafael Sardá, senior scientist at the Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas in Spain, who has been involved with CEMS for the last twenty years. He has spent much of that time trying to marry the interests of ecologists and the business community: ‘I worked in ecology, and the explanations for impacts in ecology always came back to man’. Sardá was aware that business had ‘a tremendous dependence and a tremendous footprint on the environment’, but he found that the two worlds spoke different languages. This suggests that it’s not just a case of framing the climate problem in terms business understands, as Wüstenhagen found, but of trying to ‘match the language of the two worlds.’ Wüstenhagen thinks ‘we can only make it if enough people are actively searching for solutions,’ and a huge part of that search is finding the right words to build trust, create dialogue and enact change.

The event reached its conclusion on Sunday night in a state that will be familiar to those who followed the Paris negotiations. The final agreement was, sometimes, vague. A stand out example was funding for a technology transfer mechanism based on a ‘strongly suggested set of guidelines.’ But in places what was achieved was impressive as well, with $300bn a year promised for the GCF – a stratospheric increase on the $5.2bn currently available. Employing many different registers, vocabularies and languages was important to those successes and is key to any climate negotiation. Be that the real UNFCCC, or personal attempts to convert friends to climate-friendly living.

These are not two separate fights. We use language at the individual level every day. Ultimately, the states involved in the UNFCCC are made up of large groups of individuals. If we use language to reduce our and others’ impact at the individual level then that filters upwards.

It makes the job of states reducing their impact through the UNFCCC easier. Bettzüge agreed: ‘the individual can make the job easier for the policymakers.’ It may be a slow, frustrating process fraught with vested interests, but they are also the best chance we have at a supra-national agreement. In an ideal world, a global government would take control, but Bocklet believed ‘we need to go with, as economists would say, the second best solution.’ That remains the UNFCCC. These negotiations are not the only answer, but they are a fundamental part of the solution.

With thanks to CEMS for inviting It's Freezing in LA! to attend.