A view from home –what on earth do we do with the international climate process? – Tearfund's Policy Blog

October 24, 2012 By Sara Shaw

2011 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP17), Durban, South Africa

So the lesson I’ve learned recently is that you really shouldn’t take two months to post blogs you wrote when fresh back at work after maternity leave. I was going to post on the UK domestic scene and the lack of cohesive action by environment and development groups but events bypassed me – with the brilliant Green is Working stunt and tube ads last week.

So I’ve abandoned that blog. Here instead, are some ruminations on the international climate process. Frankly, after this, I’ll have to give up any pretence of being newly back on the scene…

There is serious international stalemate in the international climate talks, and in most multilateral processes and it is really hard to see how to break it.

This is stating the obvious. What shocks me is how far backwards things have drifted over the past year. National government positions that would have been totally intolerable to the NGO community are now accepted as fact. We have become a lot more pragmatic, and, in some areas lost our sense of outrage and fight. I can totally understand this – what is the alternative? Do we give up on trying to make a bad situation better? Do we become complete outsiders to the process? If we stop trying to influence the creaking wheels of the international climate process what do we usefully do instead?

While the continued commitment and energy of colleagues working in Climate Action Network International  and other networks amaze me, looking at things from the outside it seems hard to see where things are going.

Recently the Center for Global Development’s William Savedoff (his paper is helpfully summarized on From Poverty to Power ) challenged the assumptions of many NGOs that stable global governance institutions such as the UN, World Bank, IMF etc are the norm. Savedoff’s research argues that the post 1945 consensus with its US and European dominance was anomalous, and that a more fluid ‘multipolarity’ of ‘mixed coalitions’ of the willing, including non-state actors is actually how international relations normally work. This is problematic for climate change because it requires, as Duncan Green puts in his blog, ‘something much more coercive and self-sacrificing from national governments and economies’.

In the run up to Copenhagen we closed our eyes and hoped that the momentum towards a global deal would be enough to defy some of these political realities, but in fact they defined the unravelling of the talks, and their subsequent deterioration into endless agreements to agree something relatively weak at some point in the future.

Rich countries that have caused climate change are the main blockage in any progress in these talks – their refusal to accept their historic responsibility and decarbonise, or truly pay what is owed for developing countries to develop sustainably and adapt, has been, and continues to be, the main sticking point.

But the situation is so much more complex than rich countries pitted against poor. Wealthy Middle Eastern oil states; strongly leftist Latin American countries (some of whom are also big oil producers); rapidly industrialising countries like India and China with huge levels of poverty (a recent IDS paper found half of the world’s poor live in India and China); small island states at risk of disappearing; least developed countries; a fiercely sceptic and anti-science US; a stagnating Europe locked in its own crisis; an autocratic Russia with little regard for the views of others – I could go on. International politics has always been complex and tough but seeing a way through to a global agreement on climate (or anything else), particularly in the context of the financial crisis, seems nigh impossible.

But a patchwork, piecemeal, voluntary, unscientific, self interested approach means doom for the planet, and the poorest, so somehow we must find a way.

2010 Cancun Climate Talks

What I can’t quite work out is whether this crisis means we should jump in further to try and make it work, or disengage and focus our energies on creating better political conditions in capitals or on getting action on the ground. I’d say most of us NGOs have gone for disengagement from the international process and refocus (for example Tearfund is putting more resource into equipping partners and allies in the US, Brazil and India) which leaves a smaller (maybe more agile and effective?) rump of experts lobbying internationally.

I would love to hear what others think – both inside and outside the climate policy bubble. We don’t want to waste our limited time and resources on something lumbering inevitably towards failure (either endless stalemate, breakdown or a weak pointless agreement) but likewise we don’t want the process to fail because we didn’t throw everything we had at it. How can we find the right tactics to reinvigorate the international process?