Now that the Paris climate summit is in full swing, the million-dollar question is whether a global agreement will be reached. Will all United Nations member states commit themselves to a binding agreement which can help safeguard present and future generations from the projected negative impacts of climate change?
The COP21 summit is in itself a complex web of ideologies, interests, organisational set-ups and civil society interaction. When a similar summit was held in Copenhagen six years ago, it transpired that lack of political will and poor organisation ultimately resulted in non-binding rhetoric, to the disappointment of many who had high hopes.
As was the case in Copenhagen, different ideologies are characterising COP21. They are not dogmatic monoliths, but rather entangled in a plurality of discourses within the climate policy sphere. In this context, some believe that technology can provide the most practical solutions, while others believe in markets.
Others emphasise that sustainability should reconcile economic, social and environmental factors through win-win policies. Some believe in stronger state regulation, others prioritise political ecology.
COP21 is also characterised by a plurality of interests. Some big business interests, particularly of fossil fuel producers, do their utmost to minimise the climate change problem. Others, like climate scientists, do the opposite, based on their research and projections.
National interests play a key role, too. For example, it is unclear what role Russia, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela will ultimately play during COP21, in view of the fossil-fuel energy they produce and their current geo-political interests.
The US and China, the two largest polluters, which, paradoxically, are committing themselves to tackle climate change for example through increased usage of renewable energy, are probably giving concessions and commitments to each other to maintain some form of global truce.
Various countries also combine their national interests with their affiliations.
It is unclear what role Russia, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela will ultimately play during COP21, in view of the fossil-fuel energy they produce
For example, Malta is bound by EU policy – which in itself is a condensation of different interests and ideologies at different levels – yet it is also a small island and a member of the Commonwealth.
During Malta’s CHOGM meeting, the 53 members reached their own common stance on climate change policy. A vital factor which is often overlooked in policy analysis is the organisational aspect. It is said that France invested much in organisation, hopefully to avoid a second Copenhagen. Bringing together delegates from almost 200 countries is a massive task, especially when each country has its own ideologies, interests and affiliations.
Delegations meet formally, informally, bilaterally, multilaterally, in a network of meetings. Some meetings are transparent and open to the press. Others are held behind closed doors, discussing sensitive issues such as climate financing, security and emissions targets through give-and-take negotiations. As one can imagine, negotiators are not on a level playing field, yet coalitions can play an important role.
The organisational aspect of COP21 will undoubtedly also be influenced by social interaction aspects which include charisma, emotion and goodwill. For example, the bland Obama of the Copenhagen summit seems to be replaced by a resolved and determined Obama in Paris. I only shudder to think what will happen if a Republican climate denier is elected US president next time around.
The charisma of Pope Francis and other religious and political leaders also plays an important role in the dramatisation of climate politics. Some countries like Sweden (through its red-green government) are presenting themselves as inspiring world leaders in the shift to clean energy.
Global civil society and the media play a vital sensitising role in COP21. The former was not discouraged by France’s security measures regarding public demonstrations. Social movements instead opted for a wave of protest in all corners of the world. Various media outlets, from mainstream press to alternative social media groups are giving voice to civil society whilst telling politicians that all the world is watching them.
Will the complexity of COP21 enhance dialogue for a global agreement? The opportunity is there, and a binding agreement will hopefully rise like a rainbow amid global risk.
Michael Briguglio is a sociologist.
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