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Think politics is frustrating? Welcome to climate negotiations

The latest climate negotiations in Bonn have been stalled for two full weeks and climate multilateralism is in crisis mode leading up to the next major gathering in 2015. So, what is the problem? There…

It’s hard to go places when no-one can agree on the road rules. Flickr/mike nowak

The latest climate negotiations in Bonn have been stalled for two full weeks and climate multilateralism is in crisis mode leading up to the next major gathering in 2015. So, what is the problem?

There is an inconvenient truth that the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has been operating for almost 20 years without any official rules of procedure. This little known fact has repeatedly re-emerged to haunt the negotiations, including in the most recent round of talks. It is also a fact that could help save the climate talks and the atmosphere.

The adoption of rules was vetoed by Saudi Arabia back in 1992 due to a dispute over voting measures. This left the negotiations in a legal void where consensus (which is undefined but generally seen as the absence of objection) is informally used as the main rule for decision-making. Some parties are now making use of this to veto and slow the talks.

The Russian Federation is currently blocking the adoption of the agenda for one track of negotiations unless a discussion on rules and decision-making is included. Without an agenda, negotiations cannot unfold.

Unfortunately, this is a conversation that many countries, like oil producing ones who favour consensus, don’t want to have. Others don’t want to set a precedent by caving in to Russia’s demands. The result is a stalemate and a process that is dead in the water.

This strand of negotiations (the “Subsidiary Body for Implementation”) will now be closed after two weeks of delay, without ever having started. Progress is unlikely to occur until the next summit in Warsaw in December.

Russia’s objections are political in nature. At the last climate summit in Doha the end document was approved and consensus declared despite the loud verbal dissent from Russia. The Qatari president of the summit ignored Russia in order to proclaim a fake consensus and prevent a collapse of talks. Russia has taken this as public insult, and hell hath no fury like a superpower scorned.

They are now making use of consensus to block the talks both for revenge and to show that they are an international power who cannot be simply overruled.

While many have lamented the lack of work, there are some positives coming from the current crisis. Crisis is, as the Chinese character for it (危机) denotes, both a danger and an opportunity. This blockade has brought a good deal of attention to an issue that has been swept under the rug for too long now. It simply is unacceptable and counterproductive that the climate negotiations have operated for its entire existence without any official rules. More importantly, consensus as a decision-making method is clearly condemning the world.

Many of the most recent failures internationally can be linked to consensus. In Copenhagen the negotiations fell apart due to the dissent of a handful of smaller countries. In Cancun the outcome was almost derailed by the objection of one extreme and minor party: Bolivia. As with the most recent summit, an agreement was only reached by gavelling over the protesting country. What we have is a past littered with diplomatic wreckages due to a misguided persistence to reach consensus amongst 195 countries. Despite the illusions, we actually have not reached consensus over the last few years.

Russia has now clearly demonstrated what should be common sense: giving every country a veto will lead to lowest common denominator outcomes and deadlock.

Yet there is a rose amongst the thorns. This discussion could lead to the climate negotiations finally agreeing to its rules. Doing so could lead to some form of majority voting, perhaps even before the next global agreement in 2015.

In this light, the current crisis could very well be the best thing to have happened to the negotiations in an age.