Competing political agendas and the issue of climate change

Sociologists explains what it meant by wicked problems as multidimensional challenges that are difficult to resolve due to incomplete or contradictory information, differing views on the nature of the problem, or complex interactions with other issues. According to them, wicked problems often blend into other issues and only become visible when their serious effects are felt. As per their explanation, one such problem is climate change. It is a long-term issue for which the urgency of immediate action is increasingly evident. Long labelled a wicked problem, efforts to cut back on the greenhouse gas emissions which cause climate change have been slow, uneven, and politically divisive.
And with political agendas always crowded, long-term issues like climate change can be easily shunted down on the domestic agendas of negotiating states. At this year’s G20 summit in Turkey, the official economic agenda and its minor climate component were overshadowed by the Paris terrorist attacks, the Syrian war, the refugee crisis, disputes with Russia and ongoing tensions in the South China Sea.
Balazs Ujvari, junior analyst at EU Institute of Security Studies (EUISS) stated that decades of work have gone into figuring out how to prioritise and move forward on climate issues. The nature of climate talks has constantly evolved as engaged parties learned how to frame the climate challenge in ways that make sense to political leaders and policymakers. As a result of this creative thinking, the modus operandi of international climate diplomacy has changed. There are several political agenda elements being incorporated into climate negotiations.
From the outset, COP15 was still dominated by the thinking that led to the Kyoto Protocol, with its emphasis on legally binding emission cuts. But the final outcome which is the 2009 Copenhagen Accord, brokered by those countries with a preference for voluntary commitments, heralded the end of Kyoto-style bargaining. Moving from Copenhagen, Denmark to Paris, Franc, the focus of climate discussions has shifted from binding limits to voluntary contributions. While this raises serious questions about sufficient ambition and fair distribution of efforts, such a bottom-up approach keeps the process alive and countries from Turkey to China at the table.
In the run-up to COP15, efforts to overcome the obvious divergence of views between advanced emerging countries like Brazil, China, India, South Africa and the EU proved inadequate. As these countries have successfully maintained unity on climate issues, this group has become central to the viability of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), with each of these countries becoming a focal point of European climate diplomacy post-COP15.
According to Gerald Stang, a senior analyst at EU Institute of Security Studies (EUISS), the EU and its member states have increasingly worked together to engage with these countries and other leading states, seeking to foresee, leverage, modify or accommodate their stances on climate negotiations. This work, complemented by the EU’s early and ambitious declaration of its Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC), may also have served as a catalyst for other partners to follow suit. All this has been complemented by initiatives such as the ‘Green Diplomacy Network’ of European environment and climate change experts.
Climate diplomacy in 2009 primarily meant gathering the international community within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change framework, hoping that this forum will suffice to iron out key differences. Less was done bilaterally between key emitters, or in other multilateral fora such as the G8+5 process which included Brazil, China, India, and South Africa or the Major Economies Forum for Climate and Energy (MEF).
Gerald Stang stated that this forum gathers the biggest emitters, developed or developing, on equal footing, unrestrained by United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change-like principles on common but differentiated responsibilities. Before COP21, however, a more intense pursuit of climate action in bilateral discussions (e.g. the US with China) and multilateral fora (e.g. G20) has proved crucial in maintaining forward progress and keeping the issue on partner country agendas.
Though widely criticised for failing to find consensus on binding emission limits, the Copenhagen Accord did bring parties together on issues such as the recognition of the 2°C limit for global warming this century and climate finance mobilisation targets ($30 billion for 2010-2012 and $100 billion per year by 2020). At COP19 in Warsaw, parties made progress on deforestation, loss and damage mechanisms, and the provision of expertise to help the most vulnerable, despite major disagreements over other dossiers.
As these examples show, some segregation of discussion topics, even artificial and temporary, can prevent the most divisive issues from blocking progress elsewhere. This can help overcome deadlocks between opposing blocs, as in the case of the US-China agreement on differentiated responsibilities. COP21 builds on this compartmentalisation with proceeding work on mitigation, adaptation, capacity building, transparency and other areas.
Many developing countries saw the climate talks at COP15 as imbalanced: driven by Western priorities to cut emissions and change energy systems without sufficient support for managing the subsequent costs. Since COP15, increasing awareness of the climate challenge has changed perspectives in many countries, creating the opportunity for a different mix of tools to be successful. Industrialised countries have made headway in balancing their approach, serving as a model by taking domestic action, applying increasing diplomatic pressure for governments to make substantial commitments, and becoming more concrete in their offers of climate finance, technology and expertise.
The application of these five elements cannot directly lead to the resolution of any wicked problem, but it is a recipe for planning actions, avoiding stalemates, and facilitating new cycles of reassessment. And for Europeans, pursuing pragmatism, flexibility and engagement with those holding very different views need not amount to abandonment of the core values which define them. While the route toward them can be winding, the resolution of a wicked problem like climate change requires continued focus on the ultimate goals.