The high politics of agenda-setting (Notes from the 2011 Bonn climate talks)

Wielding power is most easily thought of in terms of those with the large arsenals and deep pockets, but the true measure of power goes much further in less-noticed forms, as the recent round of climate talks attest to. In sociologist Steven Lukes’ famous formulation, the ‘first face’ of coercive power and the ability to force particular outcomes is complemented by two other ‘faces’ – the power to set the agenda, and the power of ideology in defining what others want.

At the recently-concluded midyear climate change negotiations in Bonn, Germany, much of the first week was taken up by closed-door wrangling over what the agenda of the two subsidiary bodies would be, which were finally adopted four days into the session.  This is easily dismissed as ‘procedural’; to the casual observer, a failure to agree an agenda certainly looks rather farcical.

But this is no waste of time – ‘agenda fights’, as they are known, go straight to the political disputes that lie at the heart of these negotiations about what a global climate change agreement should contain. Like the previous negotiating session in Bangkok, where discussions in the two working groups on a future agreement were also largely consumed by agenda disputes, differences over what is and is not on the agenda are where different interpretations of carefully finessed past agreements rise to the surface.

In some ways, it seems like a lawyer’s dream. Unless an agenda item is specifically mandated in a prior agreement from the decisionmaking Conference of Parties, it shouldn’t be on the agenda, some say. Similarly, the draft agenda has been charged with being ‘partial’ in what is included from prior agreements, missing out issues of concern to some. A lot of closed-room meetings and huddles around draft agendas take place, all of which represents a test of who is willing to pull back from the brink of further agenda delays. However you think of power (hard/soft, material/social, etc.), the effort to agree an agenda is a clash of wills over where the compromises will be made

A meeting agenda is no final agreement, but it represents the overall shape of what a final agreement will entail. Hence, at this stage, what is included in the terms of discussion, and what isn’t, matters quite greatly. Issues and items may be introduced at a later stage – but the success of this is far from guaranteed, and often a high-risk strategy.

Towards the end of the conference, I sat in on one open discussion that started to talk about the agenda for the year-end summit in Durban, South Africa. There, decision on certain political issues, especially over the future of the Kyoto Protocol, can no longer be avoided; I shudder to think of the wrangling that is going to be needed in the run-up to that conference agenda.

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