Jamie: Between Words and Silence – a first-time observer to COP negotiations

When I drafted my project, I was optimistic that I would see the negotiations play out by the seven elements of interest-based negotiation. After I attended my first informal consultation, it quickly became evident that the negotiations are not straightforward. The context of the COP places the negotiations to be worlds apart from the exercises I did with my classmates in my Negotiation classes. Eventually, I realized that language played a vastly important role in the negotiations and the drafted text. From there, I could finally peel back one of the many layers of multilateral climate negotiations. I also learned to adapt my thinking of the Seven Elements as I explored side events and meetings, looking to see how interests, relationship-building and options generated extended beyond the formal negotiation.

The Observer Affects the Experiment

On the first Monday of the COP, I found my way towards Zone B, seeking entry into the high-level opening plenary. The security personnel directed me to the overflow room instead, where I could only watch on the big screen while being plugged into a portable headset. I scouted my way around the vast area around the COP venue, and landed in Meeting Room 25 where I listened to a Working Group meeting on a past workshop.  I began to realize that the yellow “Observer” badge was limiting because doors only opened for pink “Party” badges.

Unlike other informal consultations in past COPs, most of the meetings were not ticketed but still confined by the space of the meeting rooms. Some sessions had all available desks taken up, and some observers were even sitting on the floor, typing frantically. Our access could be revoked as soon as one party suggested that the discussions ought to be conducted in an informal-informal (inf-inf) setting. That was what happened in my first APA Agenda 5 meeting following the Paris Agreement Article 13 developments.[1] As soon as one party suggested that they entered and informal-informal, all observers were ushered out. The first time I experienced being asked to leave, my disappointment of not being able to take notes for my project only added to the underwhelming feeling of being an observer. Melissa Low, my seasoned COP mentor who followed the transparency framework, helped me to manage my expectations. Looking on the bright side of things, closed door discussions give the parties a chance to be frank with each other and move discussions forward.

Language is Powerful

I attended a variety of APA[2], CMP[3], and SBSTA[4] meetings to see if there was a difference in the way they conducted their sessions, but they were all procedurally similar. Negotiations between parties and the Secretariat was fascinating. I was intrigued by the COP Secretariat and the co-facilitators’ responses to the organizational problems, where they sought the mandate from the parties yet remained firm with their deadlines. Many sessions had to run in parallel and parties expressed their discontent at spreading their delegations thin across all agenda items. It was pointed out that meetings were not able to start without sufficient quorum from the various negotiating blocs. It was even taken against members of the Secretariat that the second and third iterations had to be submitted by the first weekend of COP – parties felt that it was an impediment to fruitful discussions. Melissa later explained that it was because the final text had to be translated into the six official languages of the United Nations that hence put the COP under pressure to deliver.

The negotiation between member states was a lot harder to detect. To the untrained eye (and ears), I found it difficult to spot the Seven Elements in play. Since I understood some aspects of non-verbal communication through my classes on neuro-linguistic programming (NLP)[5], I tried to pay attention to the expressions and mannerisms of individual negotiators. From my vantage point, they did not have a ‘tell’ in their body language. Most of the parties are seasoned diplomatic agents of their respective countries so they must have been trained to reveal as little as possible at the negotiating table. Even if I wanted to see how they interacted with each other away from the negotiating table, they were either huddled (in their negotiation blocs) or too busy running to another venue.

The formal language of the negotiations was also relatively new to me. When negotiators spoke, they followed the protocol of speaking in order of when members raised their placard. The verb choice at the start of every sentence could highlight the agreement or disagreement in the room. “Affirm”, “Welcome”, “Fully support” showed agreement, while disagreement was phrased in a way of saying “we are not comfortable” and only in extreme circumstances it is overtly said that they do not agree. Many claims for compromise and cooperation was said as pleasantries, “looking to discuss further” or parties would say they are “willing to work”. I wonder if it was for the benefit of fellow negotiators or the observers listening in on the conversation.

Adding, changing, or taking away a single word from the text was contentious, but I could empathize with my friends who felt that these were trivial matters. Even removing brackets meant finality, and many parties at the time of the negotiation of the second iteration, was still unprepared to accept. I tried to explain it from a legal perspective, highlighting that the draft text was like a contract that was meant to bind parties, and thus the construction of every clause was a substantial issue. It seemed like the options were quickly running out because the third iteration seemed far from complete.

By the time I left my final observation of an informal consultation on Saturday, the exhaustion and frustration were palpable. Up until this point, the negotiations generated options that moved one step forward but two steps back. However, I learned to look beyond the formalities of COP in order to play closer attention to how language is an instrument for dominance. If I ever get another chance to attend a COP, I would be savvier to pick up the nuances of conversations happening around the room. Words dominate more than the non-verbal cues, and it seems like a deliberate choice to follow procedure rather than to allow negotiations to descend into an informal talk-shop. I wonder if things would be different in Week 2? I will have to check up with my pals attending from the Environmental Law Students Association.

Conclusion? Manage my expectations

Being a fly on the wall inside COP negotiation rooms was harder than I realized. Especially as a youth observer, I felt I had a stake in the success of the Paris Agreement. These parties were negotiating my future, and I felt that I had a right to know. I am sure others share my frustration when getting shut out. Nevertheless, there are trade-offs to transparency even within the space and structure of the COP. National interests take precedence, even if these interests are primarily focused on economic development. I cannot to pretend to know the countries’ interests and positions merely through a negotiation. I also learned to appreciate that the COP is only one of many pieces in an ongoing process. I only get to see a sliver of the of the overall painting of such an omnibus agreement. It will take experience, like Melissa, to balance the need to be informed and the respect for the process of being a yellow badge.


[1] The enhanced transparency framework under Article 13 of the Paris Agreement (PA) is interesting because it sets the legally binding rules in reporting and accounting emissions for nationally determined contributions (NDCs). For more details, see https://www.iddri.org/en/publications-and-events/issue-brief/article-13-paris-agreement-reflecting-flexibility-enhanced

[2] Ad hoc Working Group on the Paris Agreement (APA) meetings

[3] Meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol

[4] Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice

[5] Neuro-linguistic programming was introduced in the Negotiation class I took with Professor Joel Lee. It suggests that there are non-verbal cues and patterns of behavior that allow us to process interactions in a subjective manner. See http://mediationblog.kluwerarbitration.com/2013/04/14/ramblings-of-a-neuro-linguist-dealing-with-the-problem-of-perception/ and Prof Joel Lee’s other articles for an idea.

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