12/09/2010 08:21 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Long Arc of the UN: Overlooked Beaches, International Conflict and a Dash of Hope at the Cancun Climate Talks

Shirt and Shoes Required

As the sun rises, lilac-pink clouds filter light over choppy water and white sand, flooding the fake-marble, faux-Vegas lobbies of Cancun's brash hotels. Bleary-eyed foreigners tread slowly through mazes of potted plants, bronze statutes and daiquiri stations. Back from a late night in the clubs? Not this crowd. Cellphones in hand, the tired guests are up at dawn hunting for a cup of coffee and an outlet to charge their laptops. It's Thursday morning, and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is nearing the end of the second week of its annual conference here along Mexico's Caribbean coast.

To the novice, the incongruous settings are a bit of a distraction. (Nearly all the hotels in Cancun are all-inclusive. Drinks included.) But most of the delegates to the climate talks are well acquainted with the resort routine. This is the 16th annual year of UNFCCC talks, the key international forum for countries to work towards global cooperation on climate change. And work they have. Many have been the conferences organized, frequent have been the calls to action, inspiring have been the declarations of cooperation. But, as both severe weather patterns and endless reams of scientific papers show, work is not progress. Since the first conference on the changing climate in 1979, climate issues have been debated, dialogued, tabled, subjected to analysis, reported upon, re-opened, and re-tabled. And over those same twenty years, concentrations of carbon in the atmosphere have increased at an exponentially increasing rate.

The United Nations in general, and the UNFCCC in particular, are regularly denigrated in the public sphere as bureaucratic, wasteful and inept. In the wake of the climate talks in Copenhagen last year, many actors in and outside the environmental movement began to question whether the UNFCCC could serve any useful purpose at all. Some went so far as call the talks a circus, a motif that's been repeated.

These criticisms are not unfounded. The climate negotiations appear disconnected from the burning issues facing the world: discussions are slow and confusing, while the documents they produce are nearly indecipherable and rarely call for anything more than more talk. Ironically, though, the sluggishness and opaqueness of the UNFCCC talks are taken as signs of a failure rather than as evidence of a challenge; it is much easier to blame the process itself than examine the issues that make it difficult in the first place. But it is only by pausing to assess the challenges facing a global compromise on climate - challenges that manifest themselves most clearly in the midst of the actual negotiations - that the process can be appreciated. And it is these negotiations themselves that provide not only insight into the difficulties but a source of hope for the future.

Barnum & Bailey Have It Easy

Let's start with the circus metaphor. A circus is an organized performance: there are the acrobats, the lion tamer, and the sword-swallower, all working together on the same team. And, in the shadows, a wizard behind a curtain, keeping it all organized. The problem with the UNFCCC is that's there's no team. There's no wizard. There's not even an executive director. The UNFCCC is not a circus but an actual convention, a physical and institutional meeting space for the countries of the world to come together on their own terms.

There is some focus, of course. To become a party to the Convention, countries must sign on to a statement of principles. But those principles are intentionally vague. Climate change, bad. Action on climate change, good. Beyond that, membership in the UNFCCC does not bring with it any legal requirement to do anything; it is not so much a decision to act as a threshold agreement to come together and try to reach further agreements. Meanwhile, the only way to bring countries into the UNFCCC at the outset was to provide for a "party-driven process," in which both form and substance would be determined through multi-lateral negotiation. As a result, it is not so much party-driven as parties-driven; with one hundred and ninety three nations come not only one hundred and ninety three sets of priorities but one hundred and ninety three approaches to negotiations.

Both priorities and approaches fall all over the map. The European Union takes climate change seriously and has committed to do what it can to push the process forward. Saudi Arabia, on the other hands, hopes to maintain the status quo while their oil reserves holds out. The Solomon Islands and Tuvalu act with the urgency of existential threat; their small island nations are in danger of literally sinking into the sea. Other countries, like Canada, may actually benefit from a warming planet. No country has the same position and most countries are balancing domestic demands for short-term social and economic development with the longer-term threat of climate change; the political complexities that plague climate change in the US are far from unique.

In Full Assembly

The UNFCCC talks physically bring together formal delegations from all these parties - from the U.S., Tuvalu and Canada, from Kazakhstan, Syria, Granada, Bolivia, Ethiopia and 185 nations more - for two weeks of intense negotiations aimed at finding compromise positions. In total, more than 15,000 people are attending the talks, flooding the hotels and leaving the beaches lonely for company. In addition to country delegations are thousands of actors representing hundreds of NGOs: trade associations, indigenous groups, social movements, unions, academic institutions, UN agencies, think tanks and activist groups.

In addition to the formal negotiations, the talks provide space for country delegates and civil society to exchange information. A huge expo center, overbrimming with green enthusiasm, hosts the NGO community, organized into symmetric rows of science fair booths, complete with tri-fold brochures and bolded hand-outs. Collecting glossy reports as I wandered to and fro under the fluorescent lights, I was struck by the sheer range of policy issues connected to climate change: energy production and transportation, of course, but also agricultural practices, building efficiency, maritime law, biodiversity, human migration, food security, urban design and literally hundreds more. Which helps explain the complexity of the UNFCCC negotiations. By necessity, debates among national delegations must range from big picture questions, like the best way to price carbon, to highly technical issues, like how to define various types of degraded forests. Each country has deeply vested interests in each policy area at every level of analysis, from the design of fuel-efficient stoves to the structure of international trade agreements.

The policy issues are of immense complexity. But before countries can even reach discussion on policy, they must determine the process of decision-making and the legal forms that agreements will take; not only is there no consensus on actions to take in the world, but no consensus on how to have the debate about what actions to take in the world, nor on the legal form of agreements about that action. Layer on top of this the dynamics of individual actors, egos, and the normal complexities of any multi-lateral negotiation process, and you start to understand the range of obstacles to be overcome by the delegations.

That's all a bit abstract until you see it played out in real time. On Thursday, I found myself in the midst of a negotiating session to sink Kafka's heart. Various versions of a negotiating text on "Shared Vision for Long-Term Cooperative Action" had been proposed, but there was no consensus on which to use as the basis for ongoing discussions. Developing countries were pushing to use the existing negotiating text, which they'd modified with language about the historical responsibility of developed nations for climate change. Developed nations, meanwhile, wanted to use a new draft prepared by the Chair, which contained no mention of historical responsibility. The group as a whole, meanwhile, had yet to determine whether the text, if ever produced, would be a stand-alone document, a preamble to an agreement, or part of a legally binding accord. A discussion about a discussion about a document whose very purpose was unknown.

And yet, from the perspective of the actors involved, the debate made perfect sense. In a set of negotiations with no top-down authority, control over the agenda is a tremendous power. The text from which a negotiation starts will inevitably have a huge impact on the outcome. And where there are profound disagreements about the hoped-for legal structures of a treaty, the role of a given statement of principles is non-trivial. When your crafting text that will guide decision-making by the world, every word counts.

You Have Been Negotiating All My Life

Everything at the United Nations is a question of perspective. From the perspective of small-island developing states, the delay to act is unacceptable. Our world is warming, quickly, and we will soon reach a point where natural systems change dramatically, reshaping coast lines, creating vast new deserts, reducing critical water supplies and generally adding fatal uncertainty to an already dangerous world. The results for vulnerable communities, especially in developing countries, will be nothing short of devastating. As Christina Ora, a 17 year-old from the Solomon Islands said during a civil society intervention in Copenhagen, "You have been negotiating all my life. You cannot tell me you need more time."

But time is exactly what is needed. For the Solomon Islands, the failure of the world to act on climate change is incomprehensible. But their view is only one among many, each of which demands equal recognition. For Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, a reduction in global demand for oil would be a direct assault on their basic livelihood. Basic livelihoods are also at stake in China, which is struggling to meet domestic demands for economic development, which requires massive coal-based energy production. Meanwhile, across the world in Bolivia, population growth already faces constraints from severe water shortages occasioned by melting glaciers. Every country enters the negotiations with their own legitimate needs and concerns. Most countries do want to find a compromise position to the benefit of all, but that position is tremendously difficult to pinpoint in a world of such diversity.

Many environmental organizations see hope in the objective message of science, encapsulated in the 2007 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. But the constant references to the hard data miss the point. Politics have never hewed to the truths revealed by empirical inquiry, let alone the demands made by standards of justice, and no mere threat of global climatic catastrophe will change that. Just the opposite, in fact. Issues of climate are woven into the basic fabric of society: the structure of our economies, the nature of national sovereignty, access to natural resources and the future of international development are each implicated in profound ways. And none of these areas of human life are easily influenced or managed.

The Show Must Go On

The talks in Cancun are proceeding better than many expected, and it is hoped that some consensus documents will emerge in the next few days. These documents, in turn, could lay a foundation for further action in Durban, South Africa during the 2011 meeting. Such progress is little solace for many, though, especially in comparison with the daunting prospects of climate change. If this is progress, who needs progress?

But seeing the UN process up-close and meeting so many people from so many parts of the world, I view the matter differently. Rather than be frustrated by the process, I find myself inspired by the very existence of UNFCCC in the first place. The United Nations is flawed and is, like all institutions, defined by power and hierarchy. But it also exists because of, and continues to represent, a profound vision of shared humanity. The Convention brings together one hundred and ninety-three nations to sit side by side to reach consensus on what is, without exaggeration, one of the greatest challenges that's ever faced mankind. The fact that any progress whatever has been made - the fact that possible solutions are on the table - should be understood as a testament to power of human reason and the promise of peaceful discourse. The truth, so easily lost during the talks, is that the problem is not with the UNFCCC. The negotiators in Cancun are not decision-makers but messengers, envoys sent abroad bearing the burdens of domestic politics. Ultimately, the united nations will go only as far as each nation will go, and no further.

I am not overly worried about the outcome in Cancun. Climate change is not a problem to be solved but a changing set of conditions to which we must adapt, and that adaptation is itself a long process. More important than the final documents from Cancun is the fact that dialogue is taking place, because over the long haul, we will, as a world, have to cooperate. To that end, the UNFCCC will continue to serve as a critical meeting space - a place to hear the perspectives of others, to face the realities of a diverse world, and to be reminded of what is at stake. It is a spur to action, a call to the citizens of the world. The responsibility is not with the UN but with the nations that compose it, and with their citizens. With us.