Day 8: Mind Your Language

This morning, during the High-Level Segment of the Plenary Meeting, Enele Sopoaga, Prime Minister of Tuvalu, passionately exhorted negotiators to fight for a 1.5C warming limit, asserting that “we have no time for rhetoric or hiding behind agendas.” While Prime Minister Sopoaga rightly recognizes the extreme vulnerability of small island states and the need for immediate and ambitious action, perhaps he is too quick to dismiss the importance of rhetoric, language and discourse. After all, the entire structure of COP21 is assembled around the production of a text, where negotiators and politicians wrangle for hours, sometimes days, over the connotation of a single word (e.g. ‘outcome’ versus ‘agreement’, ‘synergies’ versus ‘interactions’, ‘request’ versus ‘encourage’, ‘CDM financing’ versus ‘financing of the CDM’). However pedantic or overly-academic this wrangling may seem, such a text can provide the crucial, comprehensive rubric for steering nations toward a clean energy and life-sustaining future. Further, no nation, politician or scientist is ever without agenda, and trying to eliminate or change agendas will only lead to frustration and disillusionment. As Paul Lussier, Director of Science Communications With Impact Network whom I met two nights ago at a Yale Alumnus event, claims, you cannot make someone care about something they don’t care about. What you can do, however, is attempt to lay out these agendas on the negotiation tables, clarify their underlying values and see if there are ways to align them and create trajectories or outlets that lead to the same end goal.

Thus is the importance of discourse-framing in global environmental politics. Discourse-framing refers to the construction of linguistic symbols and narratives that invariably demarcate what can or cannot be thought, ultimately shaping social relations and the scope of policy actions. One example of discourse at COP21 is the discourse of opportunity, as invoked today by subnational leaders at the Climate Actions Dialogue event. Governor of Washington Jay Inslee heralded clean energy as the biggest job-creating industry in his state while Mayor Gregor Robertson implored the audience to “bust that myth that climate and economy are at odds with each other”. Then there is the discourse of fear and alarm, where we see small island states banding together to bewail the inevitable calamity of sea level rise and demand an ambitious 1.5C warming limit. Equally evocative is a discourse of peace, where in light of the horrific Paris attacks, 350.org has chosen to re-frame COP21 as a ‘Peace’ Summit while political figures like Bernie Sanders and Prince Charles have articulated the link between climate change and terrorism. One might also be roped into a seductive discourse of legacy, where negotiators, politicians and business leaders urge each other to consider how they want to be remembered in the history books. And finally there is the prominent discourse of justice, in which many developing nations consistently preface their willingness to engage in robust climate action with the fact that they hardly contribute to global emissions, thus creating an atmosphere of blame and guilt that perhaps places excessive emphasis on the D in CBDR (Common But Differentiated Responsibilities) as opposed to appreciating the C.

According to U.S. negotiator Todd Stern at a press conference today, there is much unhappiness between certain developed and developing countries regarding the “language” explaining the expanded donor base, which at the moment is not legally binding for developing countries that have the capacity to contribute to climate finance. This effectively means that developing countries are allowed to decide for themselves if they want to chip in or not, which could preclude the adequacy of a global climate fund. Moreover, and disturbingly, the implementation of a rigorous transparency system (comprising inventory, report and review) for developing countries may not be something that negotiators even seek to address at this COP. Stern also reinforced the ideal of differentiation (a corollary of the justice discourse) when he admitted that the principle driving the agreement is the notion that mitigation targets are nationally determined. Thus, while there will most likely be legally binding means of assessing if nations reach their INDC targets, there will be little to no interference with the INDC targets themselves, which could ultimately obstruct the achievement of a 2C warming limit, since the majority of the INDCs are far from ambitious (as of now). These are but some of the many intersubjective, discursive elements at play at COP21 and it will be interesting to see how they compete and overlap as we enter the final, critical stretch of negotiations.

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Day 8: Mind Your Language