Inside the Chain-Link Fence: UN Climate Summit Needs an Overhaul

By Christian Schwägerl

At the UN climate summit, thousands of delegates are under immense pressure to negotiate sensible solutions in a matter of days. It's no wonder that such meetings often end in failure. But there are alternatives to the large-scale approach.

Activists protest at a beach in Cancun on the sidelines of the UN Climate Change Summit. Zoom

Activists protest at a beach in Cancun on the sidelines of the UN Climate Change Summit.

To get into the UN Climate Change Summit in Cancun, you first have to go through a chain-link fence, then pass police and soldiers with machine guns. Once you get that far, you find yourself in the middle of the conference -- and a participant in a gigantic experiment in civilization.

At UN climate summits, thousands of people are locked up in spaceship-like convention centers for two weeks. Then they are jammed into over-stuffed halls with no natural light, and are forced to survive on wilted sandwiches. They are worn down with endless acceptance speeches completely lacking in any substance. Their defenses are broken down through a bombardment of working groups and abbreviations. Meanwhile they are placed under ever-increasing time pressure.

Can such an experiment really end in success? Can it get 194 countries to agree on limits for how much oil, coal and gas they are allowed to consume, how much cheap meat they can produce and how much forest they can cut down for quick cash? Is it possible within this artificial environment to find a solution to the question of how many degrees the Earth should be allowed to warm up over the next few centuries?

Make no mistake: It is a huge step forward that such conferences have been taking place since 1994. Climate summits demonstrate that people are indeed able to think beyond the immediate future -- after all, the issue here is not finding the appropriate response to an acute emergency, but about coming up with intelligent preventive measures. And the fact that Americans work with Africans, Germans with Indians, and Chinese with Brazilians at such summits is a sign that collective cooperation is possible despite many differences. That alone is a great -- albeit fragile -- achievement.

A Symbol of Western Extravagance

But in the Moon Palace in Cancun, where the political negotiations are being held, it is easy to forget all of that. Even the venue can seem like a travesty. The Moon Palace is a luxury hotel whose pools, bars and sterile lawns cover an area that was previously home to species-rich mangrove forests. Ironically, questions of survival that affect millions of people are being discussed in a place that symbolizes Western extravagance. It's no wonder that, in this artificial five-star environment, there is not much direct talk about disappearing rainforests, polluting power plants and starving people. The problems are concealed behind pleasant-sounding acronyms like LULUCF, AWG-LCA and REDD.

The negotiating process has become so complicated that even Todd Stern, the US's chief negotiator, was forced to admit earlier this week that he didn't have an overview of the current situation.

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Photo Gallery: Hot Air in Cancun
The climate negotiations have split into many different branches and become grotesquely complicated. It's a development that especially benefits those who do not want to see progress being made. It already puts poor countries with small delegations at a disadvantage, because they can not simultaneously attend the many dozens of parallel forums.

In addition, the negotiation process involves the exact opposite of the sustainability that is invoked here hundreds of times every day. The negotiators -- the people who do the real work -- look grayer and grayer every day. In the end, everyone is so exhausted and burned out that decisions come to depend partly on pure physical stamina -- as if the climate summit were an Olympic event.

Is the UN Summit the Right Format?

The drawbacks of the summit approach can also be seen in the language used. Most of the documents are worded as if they had been drawn up by a sect of overzealous lawyers. Even experts struggle to decipher them. That, too, is another factor that works to the benefit of those who want to block any progress.

But all the complications and problems would be fine if the climate summit could, in its 16th year, actually come closer to finding real solutions, such as upper limits for CO2 emissions, new business models to preserve rainforests and coral reefs, and technology transfer from rich to poor countries. Cancun is probably the last summit that could prove this is even possible. The level of impatience, frustration and cynicism increases with each unsuccessful conference that passes. And the UN approach to climate protection becomes more vulnerable with every pseudo-compromise that is reached.

Achim Steiner, the head of the UN Environment Program, said on Thursday that there are actually two summits in Cancun. One involves the official negotiators. The second summit involves concrete action on the ground and takes the form of the many forums and presentations that happen away from the actual negotiations. It involves, in other words, what environmental groups, companies and individual governments will do. That doesn't sound very promising for the official summit. Steiner also said that he hoped that at some point there would be a summit "without acronyms."

German Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen already said that "the United Nations as the format for such negotiations would be called into question" if there is no overall agreement in Cancun. He is a big fan of the United Nations and its summits, but Röttgen recognizes that it is possible that the limits of what can be achieved under the current approach might already have been reached long ago.

But what would an alternative approach look like?

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