A crucial – but hardly mentioned – issue for climate negotiations

When asked about the prospects for climate negotiations, commentators usually sigh loudly and try to locate some small window of opportunity for incremental progress. The general impression is that there are stalemates, diametrically opposed interests, and few options for squaring the circle. Slow steps are all we can hope for in this bleak picture, it seems.

In the midst of this pessimism, we should not forget that there always remains the possibility of radically changing negotiating positions. Exogenous “shocks” to citizens’ views on climate change are imaginable. Here are two scenarios. A number of environmental disasters could hit a major country, thereby radically altering its perception of self-interest. A wave of religious awakening could sweep across another major country where the type of religion involved preaches radical harmony with nature. Both scenarios are unrealistic but we should not forget that in the past, political positions sometimes have been turned on their head in the course of a few years. We usually talk about low-probability-high-impact events with respect to bad outcomes. But we should not forget that there are also low probability events with respect to good outcomes. A radical change in public opinion is such a good outcome with low probability.

What does this have to do with climate negotiations? Climate negotiations should be set up such that they could accommodate any unexpected positive turn of negotiating positions. UNFCCC procedures, institutional flexibility, dialogue atmosphere etc. should not only be designed with the 99% probability in mind that political feasibility constraints set tight limits on climate policy but they should also be designed with the 1% probability in mind that political feasibility constraints could suddenly dramatically soften. It would be an awful shame if political will to solve the climate problem should surprisingly arrive but the inertia of political institutions would be unprepared to pick that up.

Those who think that the incremental progress of today is roughly on a par with not doing anything at all about climate change (a view I do not share), should be especially open to the above thoughts. In other words: Those who favor an all-or-nothing approach to mitigation (because they think doing little is about as bad as doing nothing) should view institutional preparedness for a radical turn in public opinion a high priority.

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