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The psychology of climate negotiations: How to move countries from national self-interest to global collective action

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The psychology of climate negotiations: How to move countries from national self-interest to global collective action
The Conversation
Asif Husain-Naviatti, Visiting Fellow in International Climate Governance, Columbia University
November 27, 2023

Global heat has seared to new extremes in recent months, and devastating climate disasters are providing powerful reminders of the costs of climate change, as governments around the world prepare for the 2023 United Nations climate summit that starts on Nov. 30.

While a small window of hope remains for meeting the goals of the 2015 Paris climate agreement, the world’s greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise.

This year’s climate summit, COP28, needs to be transformative. What will it take to harness a spirit of international cooperation in today’s complex, divisive and volatile world abounding in self-interest?

As a former senior U.N. official, I worked for years in multilateral consensus building among often hugely divergent parties. Here are some of the challenges and negotiating techniques I expect to see as representatives from countries around the world come together in Dubai.

The challenge of national self-interest

To slow climate change, the world must reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But oil producers have resisted phasing out fossil fuels, the largest emissions source. So have nations such as India that rely on fossil fuels to drive economic growth and development. Wars in Ukraine and the Middle East have further sparked fears about energy security around the world.

Climate change is characteristically more uncertain, global and longer term than other development issues. In today’s complex global environment, that leads to short-term self-interests often prevailing over the longer-term collective action required to slow climate change. That’s particularly true when countries also face energy insecurity, disrupted global supply chains, food shortages and increasing geopolitical instability.

Increasing economic interdependence among countries has also increased the complexity of international relations. So has the growing international clout of middle-income and emerging nations, among them India, Brazil, Indonesia and Nigeria, which adds to a divergent mix of influential voices in a changing political landscape.

The thorniest issue: Reducing emissions

At COP28, the first “global stocktake” of countries’ efforts to deal with climate change will show that progress has been made on climate mitigation and adaptation, but it will also show that the progress so far isn’t nearly enough.

The obstacle to reaching agreement is not about climate science but rather the potential to compromise countries’ positions or expose them to unexpected repercussions.

For example, does agreeing to “phase out” fossil fuels expose those who would continue to produce or use fossil fuels – nearly all countries – to economic disadvantage, competition and new forms of political leverage involving resources during a complex energy transition? Is there a possibility that technological advances will allow for greater future flexibility on a phase-out?

Reaching a global agreement is a marriage of many partners, with largely good intent but fear of commitment. The foundation of solutions lies in understanding national drivers, origins of self-interests and consequent constraints and, hence, not boxing anyone in.

5 tactics for negotiating a fossil fuel phase-out

There are a multitude of ways to achieve this during negotiations.

Constructive ambiguity, which allows for agreement based on more than one interpretation, is one way. Finding a path is often more important than spelling out, or agreeing upon, a single reasoning.

The “common but differentiated responsibilities” inherent in climate commitments is an example. Subtle turns of phrase in an agreement – such as whether leading a global drive to cut emissions is seen as a developed-country responsibility or something simply within their greater capacity to do – can allow multiple parties to move toward the same goal by reading their own self-interest into the language used.

Common ground can also often be reached incrementally by building trust, confidence, comfort and eventually clarity over time.

For example, at the G20 meeting of major economies in September 2023 in India, the participants agreed to triple their renewable energy capacity. They stopped short of agreeing to “phase out” fossil fuel use, but their agreement set the stage for future progress by a powerful group that operates 93% of the globe’s coal power plants and is responsible for 80% of global emissions.

Linguistic gymnastics may be deployed at COP28 to translate the G20 agreement into a global agreement aimed toward “phasing out” fossil fuels.

Using phrases such as phasing out “unabated fossil fuels” or “emissions” has been floated as compromises. Each, however, allows the caveat that carbon capture technology could be used to cancel out emissions, meaning fossil fuel use could continue. Whether that technology can effectively be applied on a large scale is hotly debated.

Climate negotiations can also be used to pressure governments to act. There is huge international pressure on the president of COP28, Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber, who is also the CEO of the United Arab Emirates’ state-owned oil company, to exercise his influence with other oil producers and businesses to edge closer to agreement on “phasing out” emissions.

Finally, should the words “phase out” still elude negotiators, it will be important to ensure a trajectory of progress. When words in an agreement won’t (yet) work, officials can send those difficult issues to other forums to work out the details.

For example, the question of phasing out fossil fuels can be incorporated into the ongoing global stocktake discussion and the mitigation work program, where participants are exploring new pathways to bridge the gaps in progress.

These tactics illustrate a key dynamic balance between comfort and pressure when striving to find agreement within the U.N. climate talks, where decisions are made by consensus. A common thread is maintaining flexibility – whether operational or interpretative – so all nations can move forward.

Toward a new paradigm for collective action

True collective action on climate change requires those who govern, represent or influence to respond to universal values, including ensuring a healthy planet for all nations and future generations.

It requires separating climate risks and responses from economic, political and other immediate concerns, and appreciating that critical systems that keep the planet healthy are close to breaking points.

Getting all stakeholders to value the future may take incremental improvement, but there is progress. For example, soft diplomatic channels between the U.S. and China – currently the world’s top two emitters – have been able to separate climate change from the far more contentious issues of trade, economic rivalry and shifting geopolitics.

Xie and Kerry speak to one another during COP26.
Special Climate Envoys Xie Zhenhua of China and John Kerry of the U.S. have met more than 50 times since they were appointed. Ben Stansall/AFPv ia Getty Images

To build collective action, the Paris Declaration also sought to capitalize on the potential of well-informed nonstate actors, such as issue advocates, business leaders and city mayors, to work across borders, emphasize ethics as they influence leadership, and fill gaps that governments and institutions remain ill-equipped to resolve.

The UAE has promised to create the most inclusive U.N. climate conference yet. It’s up to the COP28 leadership to harness this potential and translate it into a decisive global shift to address climate change.

The Conversation

Asif Husain-Naviatti was a career employee of the United Nations for over 25 years.

Source: The Conversation


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