Climate Justice & Sustainability

Votes not Vetoes: A New Way to Cut a UN Climate Deal and Create Momentum on Climate Change

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The climate talks under the United Nations are struggling to reach the decisions needed to avoid catastrophic global temperature rise, and the latest IPCC report paints a gloomy picture for the future. ‘Business-as-usual’ decision-making is unlikely to achieve any major international breakthroughs. But a change in the way decisions are made is both possible and preferable, and has the potential to unlock the negotiations.

At the moment the UNFCCC makes decisions based on consensus. Consensus has no official definition, but is generally interpreted as unanimity: agreement in the absence of any stated objection. This effectively gives every country a veto and has led to stalled conferences and lowest-common-denominator outcomes.

A system of majority voting, however, doesn’t allow one or more countries to stymie progress. It is therefore a speedier and more effective way of reaching broad agreement.

By doing away with the threat of veto, majority voting can also help build consensus. When countries have veto power, they are under no pressure to budge an inch in their negotiating stance.

Anthony McGann, a political scientist at the University of California Irvine, has described consensus as the tyranny of the minority, describing it as the system “least likely to produce consensual behaviour”.

By contrast, the threat of going to a vote encourages compromise and deters minority blocking. The procedural nuclear deterrence of a vote looming overhead provides the best conditions to reach agreement.

Moving towards majority voting could conceivably create a new political dynamic - one in which progressive nations can move ahead without constantly being hampered by the laggards of climate politics. Looking at the precedent of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and the O-zone negotiations, once a threshold of countries has joined, participation could continue to grow and become near universal. This is particularly true as the impacts of climate change are felt and countries become increasingly concerned over time.

Contrast that with the history of countries of watering down agreements and then refusing to join, as the US did with the Kyoto Protocol. A history that the negotiations seem hell bent on repeating.

Voting would allow for us to move aware from historical precedent towards semi-global agreements on either specific issues, or entire treaties. An entire new world of governance by a critical mass could be possible.

Importantly, a change to voting is not a pipe-dream; there are legal avenues for implementation. Currently, Papua New Guinea and Mexico (supported by the EU and the majority of developing countries) are attempting to introduce voting by amending the constitution of United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC- the climate negotiations). This is one of the few processes that can be passed through a three-quarters majority vote. The problem is that the outcome is only binding on those parties who vote for it. Even if a vote is successful, countries who voted to maintain the status quo would still be bound by consensus.

A more promising way of introducing voting is by adopting the original draft Rules of Procedure. Strangely enough, the climate talks have operated for 20 years without any official rules. Adoption of the rules was blocked by Saudi Arabia due to disputes over specifications for voting. The negotiations were always meant to have voting, but Saudi Arabia was more interested in maintaining a veto. The catch is that the rules need to adopted by consensus. But as consensus is not officially defined, a strong president of the talks could ignore the protests of a minority and adopt the rules of procedure with a clause for voting. This would not be unprecedented; the convention itself was adopted despite the objections of some countries.

There are, however, several impediments to introducing voting. First, developed countries are afraid of being outvoted by developing countries on financial matters, as poorer countries make up a significant majority. A simple solution is to design a voting system that requires a large majority (say, 90%) in order to pass decisions with financial implications. This would prevent developing countries from wielding overwhelming power on monetary matters. Other issues could have different thresholds, depending on feasibility and importance (a voting model I term “Layered Voting”).

Second, countries have by now become accustomed to having a veto, and may view a lack of unanimous consensus as a threat to the legitimacy of the negotiations.

The rebuttal to this is that the credibility of the climate talks is based on outcomes, not procedures. People around the world are not losing faith in climate talks because of procedural injustice; they are losing patience because of the infuriating lack of progress.

The climate threat can now legitimately be described as a crisis, and that too may help to drive change. Crisis, as we saw during the 2008 global finance collapse, is a powerful force for ditching political norms and embracing new practices.

A collapse of negotiations at the next major summit in Paris, 2015, could provide enough political momentum for change. If effective consensus outcomes prove impossible to achieve then countries, may fear the prospect of another Copenhagen enough to take drastic measures.

But voting will need a champion as well as a crisis to come into being. Civil society has always been surprisingly effective in putting new ideas onto the political radar and setting the agenda. Yet voting, has rarely left the lips of activists, even when the issue was clearly raised in the negotiations last year. Not only is it a rather unsexy topic, but many individuals and groups are wedded to the idea of consensus as a system that is fair and equitable. To challenge consensus in favour of majority voting is seen as promoting an old-fashioned and biased system.

These people may lack the foresight and bravery to push for voting, but I see this role falling to those who have always been the champions for new and bold ideas: youth.

Youth advocacy, at and prior to 2015, could prove to be the missing link which can catapult voting onto the political stage. Countries, especially powers like the EU or China, will only take such a courageous and different path forward if they feel that they have the confidence of the public and moral legitimacy to do so. We, as youth, can provide that assurance, since providing that moral compass and awareness raising for radical ideas has always been our strength.
An old definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results”. With each passing year the negotiations look more like collective insanity with countries expecting improved results by persisting with the same rules and structure. Politics may not change easily, but voting could be a leverage point that could revive the climate negotiations.

This article is based upon an academic publication by the author based upon his PhD research which is openly accessible online here.

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