from Energy, Security, and Climate and Energy Security and Climate Change Program

The Stakes in Durban

November 29, 2011

Blog Post

The annual United Nations climate talks have opened in Durban, South Africa, with even lower expectations than last year’s ones did. This is reasonable: with most countries unwilling to do much new at home to deal with climate change, the global talks don’t seem to matter.

In a pair of new pieces, though, I argue against this conclusion.

First, in the Financial Times today, I argue that the European fixation on a binding global climate agreement is misguided. Here’s the kicker:

“The European fixation on a legally binding deal could blow up the talks…. Some may secretly wish for this outcome, which would discredit the UN talks, and, some might hope, allow another, more productive forum to rise in its place. The experience of Copenhagen, though, suggests that chaos and acrimony are not enough to kill the enterprise. The real choice nations face is whether to use the forum constructively or not. Setting aside the goal of a legally binding treaty would give negotiators the space they need to make real progress.”

In a piece for, I expand a bit on how the fight over the future of the talks might be resolved, and also discuss the other issues at play in Durban. A core thread running through both of these pieces is the belief that the UN climate talks still matter.

Why believe that? It’s not that a good architecture or institution can turn disagreement into harmony. So long as individual countries aren’t ready to step up, no amount of international diplomacy will help. Nor is it that the UN talks can have a transformative impact on global climate efforts.

But a bad architecture and dysfunctional institutions can turn harmony into disagreement. If, in the future, domestic politics and policies start to change, a bad set of international institutions – for example, a climate fund with unworkable rules, or a system for international transparency that no one trusts – could well retard progress. (If domestic politics and policies never start to change, well, then we’re wasting our time thinking about climate policy.) Moreover, just because the UN talks can’t fix things alone doesn’t mean that they can’t help.

Let’s be clear: one can argue convincingly that if the UN process didn’t exist, we wouldn’t invent it. But that isn’t an option on the table. Diplomats in Durban need to make the best of a bad situation, and to do that, it will help for them to take the long view.