UN Climate Negotiations

The Ideal Delegation: How institutional privilege silences “developing” nations in the UN climate negotiations

link to article in Social Problems

In the UN climate negotiations, national delegations cannot contribute equally. Scholarship on the negotiations has consistently demonstrated that “developed” countries have greater influence than “developing” nations (e.g. Ciplet, Roberts, and Khan 2015; Green and Chambers 2005; Gupta 2005). Despite scholarly attention to this inequality, the literature has not yet elucidated how these inequalities materialize in the negotiations. This study fills this gap by examining the lived experiences of delegations and their negotiators at negotiations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Drawing on 30 interviews and over 200 hours of observation at five UNFCCC meetings, I ask: (1) how are institutional structures in the UNFCCC aligned with normative ideals of national development?; (2) how do these ideals impact the experiences of national delegations and their negotiators?; and (3) what does this reveal about institutional inequality and privilege in this context? Building on institutional and organizational studies of work, and literature on Developmental Ideals, I identify four characteristics of an ideal delegation to the UNFCCC, that are based in norms of national development and privileged by the structures of the institution: large, English-speaking, with Western scientific and legal expertise, and the ability to send the same negotiators year after year. I demonstrate how non-normative countries that cannot send an ideal delegation find that the institutional structures prohibit them from engaging effectively. Ultimately, they must develop coping mechanisms to creatively compensate for their systemic disadvantages.

Legitimately Paralyzed: How fairness and flexibility in the UN climate negotiations have doomed them from the start

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has been working to address global climate change since 1992. However, after nearly three decades of international negotiations, it still has not produced an effective climate treaty. Although this failure could be attributed to many factors related to the nature of the issue at hand – climate change is complex, its scale and reach are unprecedented, effective solutions call for enormous changes in global systems – there is reason to believe that institution itself deserves greater scrutiny. As an institution of global governance, the UNFCCC requires legitimacy, granted by its member states, in order to persist over time. How has the UNFCCC maintained its legitimacy even after numerous failed or weak global agreements, and with a rapidly warming planet that demands urgent action? In this article, I argue that the problem lies in the standards for institutional legitimacy that were established in the institution’s founding. Through an analysis of official texts, an examination of the UNFCCC’s founding, and over 250 hours of observations and 30 interviews conducted at six UNFCCC meetings, I find that the UNFCCC’s legitimacy is primarily procedural, derived from fairness in its processes, and to a lesser extent substantive, based on flexibility in its texts. Its legitimacy is not based on output, meaning that its effectiveness is relatively unimportant. These findings suggest that radical changes are required in the UNFCCC’s institutional structures if it is to have any chance of addressing global climate change.