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Simplifying wording of UN climate decisions could bring big benefits – lawyer

by Laurie Goering | @lauriegoering | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 5 September 2013 16:16 GMT

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon talks during the opening ceremony of the plenary session of the high-level segment of the 18th session of the Conference of Parties (COP18) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Doha, December 4, 2012. REUTERS/Fadi Al-Assaad

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“It really, really doesn’t need to be like this,” an expert says of the maddeningly complicated documents

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – For all but the most clued-up experts – and I expect even for them – the decisions that come out of UN climate negotiations can be a nightmare.

That’s not just because they’re often desperately lacking in ambition. The wording itself – reference-laden, eye-wateringly long, hugely repetitive and maddeningly complicated – makes it difficult to make even basic sense out of what has been decided, particularly for anyone outside the negotiating room.

It’s even worse for non-English speakers, who must try to comprehend the tortured language after it’s been through a UN translation process.

Could simplifying the wording help improve understanding, and perhaps drive better, faster action on climate change?

That’s the contention of a new paper from FIELD, the London-based Foundation for International Environmental Law and Development. The organisation, which tries to make international law processes more understandable and accessible, recommends that the 195 countries and other parties negotiating through the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) “consider an entirely new structure and style” for their decisions.


Right now “even people with perfect English may not understand what a UNFCCC decision says,” observes Joy Hyvarinen, executive director of FIELD. “So much of what is in (the decisions) is completely unnecessary. It really, really doesn’t need to be like this.”

As sensible as it sounds, turning out decisions that people can understand may not be an entirely easy sell. As the paper notes, some countries only feel reassured that their point of view has been taken into account if certain wording is repeated as often as possible.

Long decisions can include proposals from many countries, which can make any final decision more acceptable – particularly if the negotiators’ bosses have demanded it be in there, somewhere. Sometimes complicated wording is simply necessary to express a complex idea, or has become routine and comfortable for negotiators.

And then there are the benefits of “constructive ambiguity,” or “wording that is deliberately vague so that it is open to different interpretations,” FIELD notes.


But writing down decisions in such a way that people struggle to understand them has plenty of drawbacks as well.

Besides forcing readers to wade through pages of unnecessary text to find what they need, creating delays and driving up translation expenses, the current process produces decisions that “can become even less clear when translated.” That makes it “difficult for people who do not have an excellent understanding of English,” the paper notes, potentially producing delays, confusion and mistrust

Hyvarinen, a lawyer who has followed the climate change negotiations on and off for decades, says that even she has trouble wading through “the occasional paragraph” in climate decisions.

“There’s no rule that says you have to produce complicated decisions in a certain style,” she said. “There are some rituals and routines that are probably quite important for many people and feel reassuring because they’re familiar and how we do things in the UNFCCC.

“But I find it very difficult to find any reasons for maintaining the current system,” she said. “It’s grossly unfair to non-native English speakers. And it’s so inefficient for everyone.”


Hyvarinen thinks an opportunity for change may be on the horizon. Concerned about the glacial pace of climate negotiations – particularly in the face of evidence of the accelerating and worrying impact of climate change itself – some researchers are arguing that the negotiating process needs an overhaul, including potentially a move toward reaching decisions that are less than unanimous, which is the current requirement.

Overhauling language might be another needed change, particularly because “UNFCCC discussions become more and more and more complicated every year … and perhaps they’re at saturation point now,” added Hyvarinen.

Nearly everyone involved in climate discussions complains about the language surrounding them. Tony de Brum, the minister-in-assistance to the president of the Marshall Islands, said that before holding a panel discussion this week in which ordinary people interacted with climate experts and leaders in the Pacific, he had to put out a three-page guide to climate acronyms “so the participants could understand what was referred to.”

Such communications roadblocks need to change, a growing number of experts say – or decades of work to produce action on climate threats could be at risk of achieving very little.

“Some bureaucracy is unavoidable” at climate negotiations, Hyvarinen admits. “The UNFCCC is a process for bureaucrats. But I really think it can be made much, much better.”

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