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Suspense and Suspensions

December 18, 2009

We haven’t posted on the formal negotiations in a week. There’s a reason. It’s difficult to figure out what is happening and nearly impossible to distinguish theatre from real negotiations.

To make matters more difficult, we lost access to the Bella Center on Tuesday because of limited space–only 15,000 can be in there at a time–and heightened security measures for the heads of government and state.

Here’s a rough recap.

Last week, lack of consensus on basic procedures brought both negotiating tracks to a confused halt. On Wednesday, the LCA track was suspended indefinitely. On Thursday, the KP track was suspended after a 20-minute huddle of country bloc leaders left disputes unresolved. Both suspensions followed disagreement on proposals from Tuvalu, a small Pacific island.

China, India, and others disagreed with Tuvalu’s proposals while other small island states supported them. Tensions among developing countries meant that developed countries could remain silent. In an environment where NGOs and media tear up every statement that doesn’t fit their expectations, the delegates tend to withhold positions if they don’t have to share them.

Over the weekend, both tracks resumed, but coherence didn’t.

On Monday, I watched a subcommittee start 45 minutes late, pause to relocate to a bigger room, and then end early after a 20-minute debate on whether to proceed with the discussion or not. The Swedish delegate, representing the EU, joined other countries in stalling the subcommittee’s work on emissions reductions targets–a central piece of the negotiations–because the G-77 was refusing to participate in concurrent meetings. I don’t think this is an unusual negotiating tactic.

Tweeters galore raced to announce the next piece of news: all subcommittees under the Kyoto Protocol were suspended until the evening. OK, I may be exaggerating the number and intensity of tweeters in the Bella Center, but #cop15 and #Copenhagen have both appeared on the “Trending Topics” list over the last two weeks. Anthony tells me this is significant.

Trending topic or not, conflict over the basic form of the Copenhagen outcome has undermined work by detail-oriented subcommittees. Politically-binding? Legally-binding? One new treaty? Revise Kyoto and add a new treaty? Kyoto 2.0? A new world environmental organization? Consensus on these questions has yet to emerge and less than 24 hours remain.

With this degree of uncertainty and disagreement in the second week of the summit, the scope of possible treaties narrows. How can parties work out complex policies on forestry, technology transfer, carbon market regulation, offset rules, and adaptation funding in the last hours when negotiators finally lay down their cards? They probably can’t.

That all happened before heads of government started arriving in unprecedented numbers.

Since government heads arrived, there has been a steady stream of speeches in the plenary. Redundant, redundant speeches. Over 117 heads of government are here, and most speak longer than their allotted time. Who are they speaking to? It’s not a simple question. The room is often half-empty. I suspect their words may be intended for people at home as much as the other leaders who have gathered here.

Negotiating sessions have gone around the clock. Meetings lasted until 6am yesterday, followed by other meetings starting immediately afterward. Last night, a secret meeting started at 3am in expectation of Obama’s arrival today. Now, it appears that China has walked out of Obama-led closed-door talks.

U.S. Leaders were out in force yesterday at the conference center. Hillary announced a goal of $100 billion in combined public and private climate finance per year from developed countries by 2020. This announcement received mixed reactions, ranging from developing countries calling it insufficient and an empty promise to American environmental groups praising this as the first mention of much-needed long-term finance from the U.S.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Henry Waxman (D-CA), and Ed Markey (D-MA) joined others yesterday in a House of Representatives press conference describing the House climate bill passed in June.

I’ve been surprised to see how media coverage has affected the negotiations. Tensions within the G-77 boiled over last night on “The Greatest Debate On Earth,” a BBC and DR television show. In the middle of the show, President Nasheed of the Maldives interrupted the show host to say his country was not well-represented by the G-77 position, which he called an outdated institution. Sitting with our hosts in their living room, Anthony, Andrew, and I were stunned by Nasheed’s bold statement. His statement marks a dramatic change in alliances within the developing bloc.

Much media attention has focused on the divisions between China and the United States, but this conflict is, in part, performed to make the treaty terms appear hard fought to home governments and citizens. Today, China conceded to international verification of their emissions reductions, but it’s tough to know whether the Chinese delegation planned to concede and only waited until the last minute to appear stronger and draw attention away from other negotiating points.

Anthony asked me today whether I thought we were capable of better knowing what’s going on with the negotiations. I told him I don’t think our team is intellectually incapable, but knowledge is always linked to power. Press members, for instance, still have access to the conference center. So do some members of civil society. Many of them have personal connections with government delegates and NGO leaders, but they are still left to guess at government’s negotiating strategies just like any poker player.

From our political position as American university students, we are highly limited in what we can know about the talks, especially as they are proceeding. Delegates are professionals at guarding knowledge and trading it when it’s to their advantage.

Yet I suspect even many government delegates share our unanswered questions about how these talks will end.

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