The Problem with Consensus in the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change

By Vogel, Jesse | Philosophy and Public Policy Quarterly, Winter 2014 | Go to article overview

The Problem with Consensus in the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change


Vogel, Jesse, Philosophy and Public Policy Quarterly


When Russia, along with Ukraine and Belarus, shut down one track of negotiations at the intercessional conference of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) last June, no one was pleased. "We need to act now, and we need to act together," the negotiator for the Least Developed Country block said, expressing the frustration of the world's most climate-vulnerable countries (Mathema 2013). The conference in Bonn, Germany was never to be a monumental one--it was not a full conference of the parties, rather, a smaller meeting of subsidiary bodies --but with the deadline for a new international climate agreement rapidly approaching, the Bonn conference was a potentially important step. Yet, by proposing an amendment to the provisional agenda aiming to hold "a formal discussion of meeting procedures," the trio of Eastern European powers blocked all progress on matters most important to vulnerable nations relating to climate adaptation, forest protection, and the framework for a legal instrument to deal with climate-related catastrophic loss and damage (UNFCCC 2013b). The problem of procedure in the UNFCCC struck again.

A background document submitted to the UNFCCC Secretariat in the lead-up to the November 2013 Conference of the Parties (COP19) clarifies Russia's concerns. In that document, the Russian Federation described an eroding UNFCCC process that limits the authority and usefulness of the institution. Legal entanglements are increasing and transparency is fading, Russia claimed. Additionally, the country wrote that, having never adopted the Draft Rules of Procedure, UNFCCC presiding officers have relied on their long-standing fallback procedure--"ad hoc consensus"--in partial and dubious ways. Russia called for discussion of five specific issues at COP19, but the messy nature of consensus was at the root of each (UNFCCC 2013a).

The de facto and ad hoc decision-making procedure employed by the UNFCCC is the way the body got around its first roadblock--a refusal by Saudi Arabia and other oil-producing states to sign on to group voting rules--and conference presidents continue to abide by it, as the body has never since formalized decision-making rules (International Institute for Sustainable Development 1995). Yet, despite clear problems, 850 environmental NGOs most dedicated to climate action responded to Russia's concerns by slamming the country for stalling progress (Brockley 2013). The major problem within the UNFCCC is a problem of international ambition, they indicated in a press statement, and the procedural claim was nothing more than a last-ditch effort by a low-commitment loser dragging its heels.

In this article, I will argue that international climate action advocates can't dismiss procedural problems in the UNFCCC. Though the history of procedural questions in the UNFCCC has been one of blockage, these questions must be addressed for the sake of efficacy and justice. The existing UNFCCC decision-making process is both ineffective and unjust. It is ineffective because it hinders the exchange of information necessary to spur international climate cooperation, and it is unjust because it fails to adequately differentiate between countries based on their domestic capabilities (it assumes collective rather than shared responsibility). I will develop these claims through an examination of the limits of consensus decision-making, through an analysis of the UNFCCC within an international climate regime complex, and through a discussion of shared responsibility as a response to the structural injustice of climate change. Finally, I will posit that by instituting some form of majority voting the Framework Convention could increase its fairness and effectiveness.

The Futility of Ad Hoc Consensus

Though the concept of consensus is connected to the private law principle of "consensus ad idem"--total agreement about the meaning of a contract that gives it its legal force--the principle of consensus as used in the UNFCCC lacks clear definition (Cambridge Business English Dictionary, 1st ed. …

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