Perception and misperception in climate politics

Finger-pointing is endemic – perhaps even necessary – to any set of international negotiations, and for climate change, this is no different. The annual conference of parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change starts meeting today in Cancun, Mexico, for the next two weeks, with the countries still at loggerheads with regards to an overarching, comprehensive agreement for the post-2012 era.

The former head of the UNFCCC secretariat, Yvo de Boer, said last week that one reason for deadlock, especially in agreeing action on mitigation, lay in the suspicions of developing countries about the impacts of these on their economic prospects:

“Although many nations pay lip service to this green growth model, most of them, deep in their hearts, are still unsure. In fact, many developing nations fear that the intent of the West is to use climate as an excuse to keep developing nations poor and maintain the current economic status quo”

Prescient or irrational? You can marshal all kinds of arguments either way to validate the point about the ‘intent of the West’ to explain the reluctance of developing countries to make further commitments. One recent paper from the International Institute of Environment and Development, tracking progress since last year’s Copenhagen summit, highlights the gaps between promise and reality in the $30bn fast-start finance that was supposed to be one of the more tangible outcomes. The balance of finance, the authors contend, has been skewed towards mitigation, rather than adaptation (the greater concern for developing countries); the claim for such funding to be ‘additional’ to existing development flows is rather vaguely defined; and money has tended to come in loans rather than grants. Given this, are developing countries justified in their perceptions of Western intent – good promises, but a very different reality?

On the other side of the fence, the US decries the rigid nature of the developed-developing country distinction. In a speech in early October, lead envoy Todd Stern said:

“That [old] paradigm holds that there is a Berlin Wall between developed and developing countries as they were defined in 1992 in the Framework Convention on Climate Change, with all specific obligations to address climate change assigned – especially by the Kyoto Protocol – to developed countries. The principle from the Framework Convention that is read – misread I think, but that’s another subject – as the foundation for this Berlin Wall is the notion that parties have “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities.” Over time, many countries stretched this paradigm to say that developed countries have legally binding obligations while developing countries are asked only to act voluntarily. But this claim has no textual support.


“On mitigation, instead of a Berlin Wall with mandatory obligations on one side and purely voluntary actions on the other, all major players committed to take action on a parallel basis. The content of the actions could be different – developed countries agreed to reduce their emissions on an absolute basis, below a baseline such as 2005 or 1990; while developing countries agreed to reduce on a relative basis – in effect, to reduce the growth of their emissions. But the character of their commitment was the same.”

The US suspicion is that major developing countries are attempting to backtrack on the Copenhagen Accord, insisting on an outdated and unsupported notion of a ‘Berlin Wall’ demarcating different responsibilities for industrialised and developing countries. Instead, the US insists, that the Copenhagen Accord affirmed a ‘new paradigm’ that really was included in the original UNFCCC treaty. Is the US justified in this perception of the intentions of the major developing countries?

It is easy to point out, for both camps, how perceptions of the other’s intentions are detached from some objective ‘reality’. But doing so doesn’t seem to add much to any suggestion of how to make progress (i.e. ‘you’re being deluded, look at the reality’). Instead, understanding where the other side is starting from, not in terms of some objective interest, but in their perceptions of their interests, is essential.

Today’s Wikileaks leak of US diplomatic cables provides a different way of encountering this dynamic. In advice given by the UK ambassador to Tehran on how to deal with Iran, one cable reports that Iran starts from the belief that “US policymakers spend an inordinate amount of time and energy thinking about (and plotting against) Iran. As such, Iranians assume that everything we do or say has meaning and has been carefully thought out and co-ordinated, both internally and with the UK; there are no accidents.” Accidents do happen, of course – but UK/US honesty about any incident being an ‘accident’ isn’t going to cut much ice with the Iranians.

‘Mistrust’ is a word frequently used to describe the climate negotiations, but this label arises fundamentally from perceptions held by all parties of the other’s intentions. When you read the other side’s intentions in a particular way, then all their actions are read through this perceptual lens. No amount of words are going to change protestations about ‘how you’re misunderstanding us’; the slow march of historical experience and demonstrations of good faith are probaby the only way to reorient such perceptions. Overcoming (mis)perceptions is no easy, or quick task – but substantive progress is unlikely to be forthcoming without doing so.

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