Breakdown in Bonn: The SBI’s Spetacular Flop

Exec Secretary and SBI Chair consulting before their final decision.

Exec Secretary and SBI Chair consulting before their final decision. (source, IISD RS)

It is a rare moment in time when one can say that they are actually witnessing history in the making.  Granted, the significance of any given event is in the eye of the beholder, but for two students in the thick of the climate change negotiations, today was one of those days.

As mentioned in earlier posts, the SBI of the UNFCCC has been struggling throughout the last 8 days to adopt their agenda for this meeting without success.  Today, largely because of the stubbornness of the Russian Federation, Ukraine, and Belarus this situation utterly fell apart, the process now completely stalled.  Having witnessed this moment in the making, Michael and I would like to use this post to reflect on the events of the day and offer an analysis from our perspectives as newbies to climate change.  I will start by outlining the factual events, then Michael will provide his analysis, and I will conclude by providing my thoughts on the situation.

Factual Overview

Background

In order for the SBI meetings to start, an agenda must be adopted.  On the very first day, Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus put a halt to the process by requesting—three days prior to the start of the event—a new agenda item.  The item that they requested was call for a discussion of the procedural rules.  Other parties, including the G77, China, and the European Union were against the amendment to the agenda.  The Chair attempted to find middle group by suggesting that they move forward without adopting an agenda while the Vice-President met with interested parties to discuss the issue.  This suggestion was firmly rejected, and a series of closed sessions began in which the parties attempted to come to a compromise.

For the next couple of days, there was much uncertainty regarding the SBI.  Plenary sessions were listed on the daily schedule, only to have them pushed back later in the day and then eventually cancelled.  Finally, on Friday there was an open SBI meeting in which it became clear that there was no consensus on the issue and closed-session discussions resumed.  No official word came until the SBI plenary session was once again list on the daily schedule for today, Tuesday of the second week.

The Historic SBI Meeting

I think I can speak for most people when I say that the uncertainty continued with the start of today’s meeting.  Many were hopeful that an agenda would be adopted and progress on substantive issues could be made in the final days of the meeting.  The meeting started with the Chair offering what he referred to as a “solution box.”  This compromised included: (1) a statement by the Chair regarding the importance of the desired agenda item, (2) this statement would be incorporated into the SBI report, (3) that the agenda would be adopted with item 19 (the Russian Proposal) deleted and item 4b amended, (4) that a contact group would be immediately created for the item including the Chair & Vice Chair as the heads of the group, and (5) the contact group would be conveyed as soon as possible.

Russia, Belarus, and the Ukraine immediately rejected this proposal.  Then the G77 and China expressed their disappointment that once again Russia was impeding progress and they accepted the Chair’s proposal.  Following this, a long list of other parties and groups expressed their acceptance of the solution including: Switzerland (speaking for the Environmental Integrity Group), Chile, the EU, the U.S., Colombia, China, Australia, Peru, Swaziland (speaking for the African Group), Japan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Nepal, New Zealand, Singapore, Brazil, Indonesia, Canada, Trinidad & Tobago, Nauru (Speaking for the Alliance Of Small Island States), India, Ecuador, Norway, and Gambia.  It was clear from each of these interventions that all but the three objecting delegates wanted to accept the compromise and move forward.

After over an hour of interventions, the Chairman once again tried to push forward with his solution, and once again Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus blocked the adoption of the agenda.  At this point, Tuvalu asked the Chair to make a ruling regarding the agenda, essentially ignoring the objections, which the chair refused to do.  At this point, the Chair was clearly frustrated.  Sensing his frustration, the Fiji delegate implored the Chair to not give up on the situation and to not “tighten the procedural noose.”  After a break and then a long winded (27:52) explanation by Russia of their position, the Chair concluded that no consensus could be reached, thus there was no way to launch the SBI’s work.  He concluded the meeting saying that no further meetings of the SBI would be convened with the exceptions of Friday’s meeting to close out the two week event, without having ever really started any official process.

Michael’s Reactions and Analysis

SBI 2013 – frustration and fascination

Today’s meeting of the SBI reminded me of a conversation I had with Professor Bodansky before he left the conference that went a little something like this (paraphrasing liberally):

Me: “But why are we fighting over an agenda, when the real issue is the procedure rules? It doesn’t make any sense.”

Bodansky: “Sense? One thing you will learn at the climate change negotiations is to suspend your belief in logic and reason. There is a very different system of what’s logical and reasonable in the UNFCCC – consistent internally, but totally insane to outsiders.”

Russia’s actions (and here I’m lumping in Ukraine and Belarus, since Russia did most of the talking) today reminded me of this. I found it remarkable that Russia was willing to obstruct an entire two weeks of potentially productive debate and negotiation just to get some language changed on the agenda. In the process, Russia has arguably forsaken the very principles and spirit of the convention—to  prevent dangerous anthropogenic climate interference, to protect future generations from climate change, to work toward consensus building, all for the inclusion of an agenda article. To an outsider, this seems totally insane, right?

But if one reads between the lines, Russia was proving two points that needed to be proven. First, by utilizing a procedural mechanism for blocking progress, Russia demonstrated by example the need for procedural reform, while making the case for procedural reform in the process. Second, Russia was bringing attention to the procedural debacle which took place at the end of COP18 in Doha last year. As Daniel Crane pointed out in an earlier blog post, while the de-facto voting rules in the UNFCCC are by consensus only, the definition of consensus has been stretched at the COP on several occasions when COP presidents in Cancun and Doha gaveled in new decisions against the objections of lone dissenting parties. This is apparently all fine and well until you do it to a major world power like Russia, which has no problem playing the role of obstinate toddler in order to prove its point.

What is consensus? What progress can be made on procedural issues that help streamline the consensus process? How can countries get their act together before major conferences so we’re not all wasting our time and money? These are all sensical questions being asked of an inherently insane process . . . how sanity will return is beyond me.

The truly tragic result is that the representative parties at the COP have failed in their ethical obligations to their citizens at home and under the convention. The failure of the SBI is clearly symptomatic of a larger problem—the procedural complexity of the UNFCCC and incompetence of the parties involved to get anything done. It’s my hope that this changes someday soon, but if today’s debacle is any indication, it’s not likely.

Ashley’s Reactions and Analysis

The Cool, Calculated Science of the Temper Tantrum

I was certainly excited walking into the SBI meeting today.  Murmuring about what exactly had been going on in the closed SBI meetings had been constant the last few days, building suspense.  One of two things would happen.  The SBI would announce having reached an agreement and progress would finally occur on substantive issues or it would announce that there was a complete stalemate.  Unfortunately, the latter occurred.  It was clear from the beginning that the room was more emotionally charged than it had been in other meetings.  When Russia stated its position there was an audible hum to the room expressing frustration.  When a party gave a particularly eloquent intervention expressing the importance of moving forward the room clapped—something I had yet to hear during these meetings.  During the break, the room was buzzing as delegates spoke with each other, the U.S. and others clearly focusing its attention on Russia.  Emotion was even evident from the Chair.  Although generally stoic and polite, he clearly gave a heavy sigh towards the end of the meeting when it because evident that none of the interventions were going to sway Russia’s stance.  Everyone seemed to recognize the importance of this meeting and setting a precedent for the future and it was evident that many were invested in the outcome.

Reflecting back on the last 9 days, it seems to me that Russia’s move to stall the SBI bears a remarkable resemblance to a temper tantrum.  As defined, a Temper Tantrum is a “prolonged anger reaction in an infant or child, characterized by screaming, kicking, noisy and noisome behavior, or throwing himself/herself on the group to get his/her way . . .” (medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com).  Given Russia’s behavior in this situation it is easy to see the similarity between its behavior and that of a child who isn’t getting what he wants.

Russia has played the part of the screaming child.  It has gotten the attention of all the adults in the room, without necessarily accomplishing anything useful.  Moving forward, I am curious to see how things progress.  Will the SBI cave to Russia’s demands?  Will the stalemate continue?  Will Russia eventually back down?  At this point, I question Russia’s motives and whether it will get what it desires.  If Russia was looking to make a statement, it had done that days ago and by this point things should have moved forward today.

Overall, I feel that Russia’s lack of commitment to cooperation will in actuality create more problems that it will solve.  Russia would have been better served by creating a much shorter delay and then showing a willingness to compromise and move forward.  It would have gotten the attention of the other parties, while creating good will and showing a spirit of cooperation.  Although according to American values “the squeaky wheel gets the grease,” in this case it was taken too far.  This wagon wheel seems almost too broken to move forward.

-Ashley & Michael

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