Cancún’s climate colonels

Success in Mexico – and global security – depends on the ability of frontline negotiators to handle the tensions, write Nick Mabey and Shane Tomlinson.

The experience of managing complex peacekeeping missions has led the military to coin a valuable term: the “strategic colonels”. Strategic colonels can change the course of entire campaigns by the way they handle seemingly small local events. Such as resisting the desire to use deadly force against a hostile rock-throwing crowd when fired upon by armed insurgents mixed with the population. Or by preventing the abuse of detainees by angry soldiers after a comrade has been killed.

Those in command on the ground have the responsibility to prevent the emotion of the immediate moment overriding the strategic need to promote trust with the local people. As Iraq and Afghanistan have shown, making the wrong decision on the frontline can put back the success of a peacekeeping campaign for years.

A similar dynamic is now present in the international climate negotiations. Success now depends on the wisdom and restraint of frontline climate negotiators in dealing with the tensions at Cancún. The bruising experience world leaders suffered in Copenhagen last year means there will be no high-level political attention on the Cancún process. No leaders flying in to rescue negotiations and smooth over difficulties. No web of high-level phone calls to manage misunderstandings and allow flexibility.

Leaders in all countries are fully focused on economic recovery, trade and currency issues. Instead the strategic colonels of the climate world, the senior diplomats and environment ministers attending the talks, must now take responsibility for securing a lifeline for the global negotiations.

After a year in which alternative venues such as the G20 have shown they are not yet ready to deal with climate change, attention has refocused on the United Nations system as the only potential setting for global action. Current commitments are insufficient to put us on a pathway to deliver climate security, even if they are all delivered as promised under the Copenhagen Accord. A further global deal is still needed to increase ambition, but this will not happen in the next few years. Current negotiations must focus on consolidating the progress made in 2009 into binding and reliable legal commitments. But currently countries strategic negotiation “red lines” will not allow even this more modest ambition to be resolved at Cancún. Instead nations need to reach an interim agreement that builds trust and confidence and opens up the pathways to move forward.

Given the lack of public attention and political engagement, the task of agreeing such an interim step is harder than the politics of achieving a global deal at Copenhagen. But a lack of profile doesn’t mean the stakes are any lower at Cancún. Following the disappointment of Copenhagen, a second failure at Cancún could remove the UNFCCC as a viable solution in the eyes of political leaders for a decade time we have not got if we are to stabilise the climate.

Failure would also undermine confidence in national action. Domestic investment in the low-carbon economy and transformational innovation is increasing. Billions of dollars of fast-start finance are starting to flow into developing countries. But confidence is fragile and without a clear signal of progress towards meaningful, long-term global action it could quickly collapse. The climate colonels must manage a tense situation to craft a substantive outcome and rebuild momentum.

This is neither easy nor certain. The political climate is full of tension, whether from strong gains by climate “sceptic” Republicans in the United States, or disputes over international currency issues and increasing world food prices. In the absence of clear political leadership, negotiators have an incentive to be risk averse. Angry and confrontational exchanges could quickly spiral out of control leading to regression and recrimination. Megaphone diplomacy, especially between the United States and China, needs to be toned down or risk blowing up any chance of progress.

Thankfully, the Mexican presidency hosting the Cancún meeting has put some of its best people on the job. These senior diplomats, with a track record inside the UN on equally divisive issues such as human rights, have a clear plan for rebooting the negotiations. This includes launching a stepwise process to secure a legally binding outcome covering all countries over the next two years, establishing a new climate fund and taking action on deforestation and technology transfer. A deal covering all of these areas would generate real momentum and show that the UNFCCC has moved off the life support mechanism it has survived on this year.

The real question is: can the countries themselves show the maturity needed to make this happen? The inability to shift red lines means all sides will have to take tactical risks to open up a pathway forward. The interim deal cannot resolve all the issues, so countries will have to be comfortable with coming back to resolve key areas over the next few years. In particular, constructive partnerships that reach across the divide between developed and developing countries are needed. Cancún will be the first opportunity for new processes such as the Cartagena Dialogue, which includes countries like the United Kingdom, Germany and Australia, along with Colombia, Chile and Costa Rica, to show they can really build trust between the parties.

There is a real danger that countries may think they can put the blame for failure on others and hide behind well-trodden positions. This risks the talks drifting into a living death similar to the global trade negotiations. There the pace of progress is measured in decades not years. The climate simply cannot wait that long for a solution. Equally if these climate strategic colonels spend their time at Cancún trying to secure rhetorical points against each other, this will put the final nail in the coffin of the UNFCCC.

Climate change has built up a huge global community of civil society and business groups. Cancún is the time for those invested in working to secure a global deal to stand up and be counted. This will be as much about toning down the rhetoric and preventing tensions boiling over as pushing for more ambition.

We need the United States, China, Bolivia and Venezuela to say less, and for Europe, Brazil, Indonesia and South Africa to say more. It is time for the climate colonels to take responsibility to show they have the maturity to guide the UNFCCC process forward and build confidence so that it can deliver climate security for everyone.


Nick Mabey is a founding director and the chief executive of E3G.

Shane Tomlinson is E3Gs director of development.

Homepage image from UNFCCC