More than two hundred students from around the world comprising forty-one delegations gathered between May 29th and 31st to simulate the UNFCCC international climate negotiations – COP21 – that will take place in Paris at the end of this year. Engendered by Laurence Tubiana and Bruno Latour, the project deviated from the traditional format of multilateral negotiations to include unorthodox methodologies in a Theatre of Negotiations – namely the representation of non-state actors such as oceans and companies. The purpose of this experiment was to Make It Work in order to avoid a global tragedy of the commons akin to what occurred at the Copenhagen Summit in 2009.
“If you manage an agreement, it could be brought and used as an example at the real climate conference next December in Paris […]” – Laurence Tubiana, Special Representative for the 2015 Paris Climate Conference.
Sponsored by Maison Fraçaise, the delegation of Columbia University was invited to this simulation to represent Saudi Arabia, of which I in particular was the Saudi Arabian Oil Company – Aramco. Throughout the course of the simulation I found myself playing “devil’s advocate” due to the inherent clash between Saudi Arabia’s national interests and the goals to achieve an ambitious climate agreement. As a former student of international relations and sustainability, my new role compounded the educational experience of the simulation by giving me a new perspective in the debate as well as highlighting the epistemic implications of multilateral climate negotiations.
After an initial few days of artistic endeavours the first day of actual negotiations got off to a bad start. The irony of the experimentation found delegates gridlocked in the same type of discourse it was trying to escape. In an attempt to innovate, delegates found themselves confused between Vision of the Future and Pathways towards the Future that further delayed negotiations. What constitutes a Vision vis-à-vis a Pathway? Should we include Renewable Energy or Clean Energy? Negotiations decayed into discussions on meanings rather than content, which proved frustrating to many. No progress had been made by the second day, prompting the secretariat to intervene. The general mood was dwindling, as poll results showed a large percentage of delegates thought an agreement was not going to be reached by the end of the summit.
The attempt to further democratize international climate negotiations by including non-state delegations complicated matters further. A clear division surfaced between state and non-state delegations, where the former embraced a traditional discourse akin to the actual COP, whereas the later embraced a more innovative discourse to break away from the COP. This spawned debates that encompassed contradictory value judgements that were hard to compromise. This novel situation seemed akin to the theory of Empire and Multitude coined by Hardt and Negri (2000). Empire in the context of this simulation was the structure of the UNFCCC and states with a vested interest in it, whilst Multitude was the non-state subjectivities born from Empire that do not fit within the traditional framework convention.
The increased multiplicity in this experiment triggered dialectic between ambition and realism that complicated consensus building, especially in the Energy Working Group. Delegates found themselves in a complicated personal dilemma between their desire as students to reach an ambitious agreement and as delegates representing realistic circumstances. There was a fine line between ambition and delusion. As the largest exporter of crude oil, I found myself constantly erring on the side of reality and reason, which placed me as an antagonist during the negotiations. For example, agreeing to a global energy mix comprised 100% of renewable energy by 2050 was both unreasonable as Saudi Arabia and unrealistic considering the characteristics of various energy generating technologies and their roles in the world economy.
Analogous to real climate summits, negotiations continued through the entire last night of the conference in order to achieve an agreement. Under the auspice of a looming deadline, a true spirit of diplomatic innovation and consensus building blossomed that enabled Saudi Arabia to pass a Treaty for Climate Security that acknowledged the dominant role of China and the United States accounting for 40% of global greenhouse gas emissions and that current fossil fuels reserves exceed the carbon budget consistent with 2 degrees Celsius rise in average global temperatures. Inspired by the theory of Securitization of the Copenhagen School (1995) and based on the Security Council and Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, this treaty was a direct response to a poignant paradox latent in the simulation. The participation of all stakeholders in the UNFCCC, albeit democratic, is inherently ill equipped to address climate change at the speed required by the IPCC. As David Sandalow posits “the framework convention’s formal decisions based on consensus will always be least-common-denominator products, unlikely to be adequate in light of the urgency of the climate threat.”
Ultimately, the inextinguishable energy of the participants allowed for the simulation to close with a final agreed document. Having negotiated on behalf of Saudi Arabia and found myself on both sides of the debate a question remains. Is our obsession for the multilateral process justified? Perhaps. Subsequently after the simulation various developments in climate diplomacy throughout June triggered by the forthcoming Paris Summit indicate it might actually succeed. The United States achieved two bilateral agreements with China and Brazil – major stakeholders for effective mitigation. The Pope released an encyclical on climate change that brings into the discussion a constituency omitted until now. Six major oil companies called on governments to introduce carbon pricing systems, diverging from the traditional stance I took representing Saudi Aramco. The G7 called for the decarbonisation of the global economy over the course of the 21st century – an objective never endorsed before. In 2014, to global economy managed to decouple carbon emissions from growth. But not everything is good news. 2014 was also the hottest year on record. The atmosphere reached 400 ppm of carbon dioxide, sea surface temperatures continue to increase and sea ice extent in the Arctic continues to decrease. Lets not forget that the Kyoto Protocol failed to halt the growth of greenhouse gas emissions during its mandate. So here is to hoping that the final document of this simulation helps tip the scale in favour of a successful and ambitious treaty at the forthcoming Paris Summit this December.
David Prieto Steffen has a Master of Science in Sustainability Management from Columbia University and Bachelor of Arts in Politics and International Relations from the University of London.
Laurence Tubiana addressing the delegates during the opening ceremony. © Martin Argyroglo
Explaining the critical role of fossil fuels during the plenary session. © Kimberly Stama
Delegates negotiate the text late into the night. © Kimberly Stama
Paris Climat 2015: Make It Work. (n.d.). Retrieved July 19, 2015, from