There were quite a few unusual events last night in the closing sessions of the Cancun talks: applause, standing ovations, effusive thanks to the Mexicans for running a transparent process, and a climate agreement that is generally supported. Something else unusual but much more disconcerting also happened- the agreement went forward despite the protests of one country, going against the consensus decision-making process.
The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change has operated on the consensus model (where everyone has to agree to any deal) since it’s inception. While it may be the only way to make sure that all countries feel that their voice is being heard, this process is often criticized for taking too long and creating blanket value statements which everyone can agree with but which are very difficult to translate into action. After 16 years of negotiations without a binding deal that includes everyone, there has certainly been a lot of navel-gazing to see how we could make this function better.
The text that was discussed late into the early morning contained a stated goal for keeping the global average temperature increase to 2 degrees, and to review this target and potentially change it to 1.5 degrees in the future. Bolivia said quite clearly that they “oppose” and “reject’’ this document because they said 2 degrees will still have significant negative impacts (and they are absolutely right). However, either intentionally or unintentionally, they did not use the word “block.” The Chair then noted Bolivia’s objection and passed the decision. Bolivia is threatening investigation and calling it a violation of UN rules and regulations.
In the UN, countries tend to form groups and vote together in order to strengthen their voice and give each other support while under the international spotlight. It’s rare for one country to act alone, and when they do, they must be prepared to deal with heavy pressure from their peers. A few other countries such as Gabon and Columbia called out Bolivia, saying that “consensus does not mean for one country to set a precedent, or to veto an entire process.” Under this definition of consensus, the UN was right to move ahead. However I doubt Bolivia will see it that way.
What does this mean? Does this set a precedent for future agreements at the UN, or was this just a matter of word choice? The bigger question here is how much power should any one country have to block a decision for everyone. While certainly the “Cancun Agreement” is not perfect (with some significant details still to be worked out), it’s better than anything we’ve seen so far.
Because the CYD operates on a consensus model as well, this issue is something we are familiar with. Good discussion can go a long way in bringing people together, but sometimes opposing opinions can not (and should not) be changed. Sometimes I can’t even achieve consensus in my own head. It’s possible to see two sides at once, and see that two points of view are justified. But how can we move forward from that?
Since most of my fellow CYDers are still sleeping after the long night and we have yet to achieve consensus on this, I can only speak for myself at this moment. We’ve been hearing the phrase “the perfect is the enemy of the good” many times throughout these two weeks and it’s never been more aptly applied. Bolivia’s position is much closer to what science tells us we need to make sure we still have a livable planet under a changing climate. While I can’t support the process of disregarding one country’s opinions, I think that delaying this agreement would’ve run counter to Bolivia’s goals in the long run. There is still ample opportunity to strengthen targets, and as climate change impacts get worse and worse over the coming years, the whole world will be a lot more motivated to do so. A moderate agreement does not displace a good agreement, and destroying momentum for this deal would’ve destroyed the already-faltering faith in the UN process.
As the clocked ticked on last night, delegates were visibly exhausted. But the conference chair, Mexican Foreign Secretary Patricia Espinosa, refused to pause the talks, saying “We really do not have more time.” This is true for both the Cancun negotiations and for a climate change agreement. We really do not have more time.