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How to shake up global climate action?

by Laurie Goering | @lauriegoering | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 31 October 2012 12:49 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

From putting more youth and women in negotiating teams to pursuing international damages for climate losses, there are plenty of creative ideas

By Laurie Goering

If efforts so far to win a global consensus for action on climate change aren’t working, what might do the job instead?

How about putting more women, youth and members of civil society on country negotiating teams? Or helping climate-hit countries sue for damages through the International Court of Justice? Or switching to simple majority voting at the U.N. climate talks rather than demanding unanimity on all decisions?

Those were just a few of the ideas proposed at a “Dragon’s Den” pitching session in London this week, aimed at finding ways to reinvigorate the seemingly moribund international climate talks and explore ways of acting outside them if they continue to fall short.

“We are making extraordinarily slow progress toward a deal, some people think,” said Simon Maxwell, who chairs the Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN), one of the event’s sponsors.

That leaves room to try some creative solutions since, as Christoph Schwarte from the Legal Response Initiative put it, “I’m fairly optimistic that nothing can slow us down any further.”

Proposals to speed up the talks and make them more effective included a suggestion by Jose Garibaldi of London-based Energia to create a new “coalition of the willing” negotiating block that would cut across current groupings and include ambitious members of the Least Developed Countries, the European Union, small island states and others.

“A substantial majority of countries are for action,” he noted, arguing that, in time, “it is not impossible for the many small to move the few large.”

Mark Kenber, head of The Climate Group, an independent policy organisation that promotes a low-carbon future, argued for a push to “reframe the negotiations from one of burden or pain to one of opportunity”. Countries, regions, cities and others interested in pushing for clean energy, forest protection and the like should come together to scale up efforts, devise ways of working and eventually lure in others.

“We don’t live in a world where everyone agrees on everything all the time”, and if the current negotiations demand that, “we are doomed to fail,” he warned.


One way to stop spoilers blocking a deal and keeping ambition levels to a bare minimum is to introduce majority voting on at least some issues in the U.N. climate talks, rather than demanding unanimous agreement on them all, including procedural rules, said Louise van Schaik of the Netherlands Institute of International Relations.

Majority voting - weighted by the size or population of voting states, or with veto powers for major players - is used already in a variety of settings, including the European Union, the International Monetary Fund, and the U.N. Security Council, she said.

Other participants argued that breaking through the stasis of the climate talks would probably require action from outside.

Schwarte from the Legal Response Initiative suggested that the threat of lawsuits for climate-related losses could spur foot-dragging countries into action. Palau, a low-lying Pacific island, for instance, is exploring seeking climate damages through the International Court of Justice, and the International Law Commission is developing draft articles on the protection of the atmosphere.

“With creative interpretation, there might be other entry points,” he said. Any one option is “not necessarily a better battlefield but we need to assess all battlefields.”

Robert Falkner of the London School of Economics, said advances in national policy would be the most effective way to drive action and eventually progress at the climate talks. Countries can lead by example, he said, providing policy blueprints, technological solutions, incentives and pressure on things like trade policy to spur wider action.


Farhana Yamin of University College London argued that progress could be catalysed by social movements big enough to counter oil industry lobbyists and increase political pressure.

That pressure should focus on carbon pricing schemes in major carbon-emitting nations and climate-related legislation to push investment toward clean energy and transport, more effective farming and so on.

Building strong movements - now “patchy, ad hoc and not to scale” - will require bringing together and energising people who care about a broad range of climate-related issues, from cheaper, cleaner energy to the long-term welfare of their children.

They could up the pressure on the climate talks, but in reality “it’s about saving the planet, not the U.N. process,” Yamin said.

Finally, Bridget Burns of the Women’s Environment and Development Organization (WEDO) argued that a key problem at the U.N. climate talks – and in other climate discussions – is too many “navy blue power suits”.

“Diversity leads to efficacy and more sustainable solutions,” she said, arguing for more seats on negotiating teams for women, young people, indigenous groups and civil society. Capacity building efforts should also be focused on those groups, rather than helping “career male politicians become more effective players in the multilateral process”, she added.

Climate change has the biggest impact on women and young people but countries are being represented by delegations of 20 men, Burns said. “Do we really expect this to transform business as usual?” she asked.

She also argued for a broader official role for civil society in the climate negotiations, as “right now in the process civil society is relegated to two minutes at the end… to give what’s effectively a token intervention.”

Asked to choose which of the seven proposals would be the most effective in moving climate action forward, the audience opted for Burns’ diversity push as the favourite, with 21 percent of the vote. Garibaldi’s regrouping of climate negotiating blocs was second with 16 percent, and Yamin’s focus on social movements came third with 15 percent.

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