Christine von Weizsäcker, Ellen Matthies
Heike Kuhn, BMZ

Global treaties – are they destined to fail?

Dialogue forum on 20 January 2015

Mankind is pushing the planet to its limits. Our means of subsistence are at threat, many parts of the world are being ravaged by war and poverty. These global challenges make internationally binding agreements necessary.

Multinational conferences and agreements have been in existence for decades. However, negotiations often make only halting progress. How can processes be speeded up and what are the chances of nations coming to an agreement? On the first evening of the Dialogue Forums in 2015 addressing the topic of "Climate, poverty, catastrophes – save the world!", Undersecretary Dr. Heike Kuhn, environmental psychologist Prof. Ellen Matthies, and environmental activist and biologist Christine von Weizsäcker came together to discuss this issue.  

2015 will be the year of international agreements: the Millennium Development Goals will end and are to be replaced by a new agenda. The United Nations will be fighting for a new global framework on disaster risk reduction in Sendai in March 2015, and the next World Summit in Paris must set the course for future climate protection.  A great deal is at stake: "It's perfectly clear: unless a certain degree of resource and environmental justice can be secured for all people, the chance of maintaining peace is very low," fears Christine von Weizsäcker. At the same time she warned against hastily playing down the past achievements of international negotiations. The point is not like a high-wire artist to complete a distance as quickly as possible, but rather to "weave a hammock" in which all people can find adequate space. "Tying these countless knots in the widest diversity of agreements is more of a cultural achievement than a negotiating achievement," stated the environmental activist, who herself has participated in numerous conferences. This requires a cultural change that will take a certain length of time.

Staying power needed
Heike Kuhn from the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development explained how laboured international negotiations can be. "The decisive things do not happen at the plenary sessions in the great halls of negotiation, but take place in many locations outside these halls. You need a lot of allies and staying power and should not be easily discouraged." She admitted that things often only move forward in steps of millimetres. However: "The silent routine work going on behind the scenes is often not even noticed, but failure all the more clearly."

Although the members of the global opportunity and risk community argue about the right way to do things, at least they do not make war on each other any more. The best results, says Kuhn, are always achieved when as many players as possible are involved in the negotiations. In other words, not only government officials but also the affected parties themselves. "Just think about where we would be today, if we did not talk so much to each other at international level," she bid the audience consider.

The Scientific Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU) has developed recommendations for how negotiations can be most effectively conducted at the next climate summit in Paris. The bar has been set high in Paris: to ensure that the global temperature rises no more than two degrees above pre-industrial times, mankind must from 2070 at the latest abstain entirely from the use of fossil fuels such as oil, gas or coal. "Climate change is a matter of justice," stated Ellen Matthies, who has been a member of the WBGU since 2013.

Different approaches exist for just distribution of the burdens. In addition to the historical responsibility - who has already generated how much CO2 - and the economic viability, the cost efficiency of the measures is also frequently addressed. "The many different concepts lead to friction losses, and each country chooses the approach from which it draws the greatest benefits," explained the professor of Environmental Psychology at the University of Magdeburg

Golden paths and other approaches
How, under these circumstances, does an agreement come to fruition? "The golden path would be to formulate a global goal to distribute the burdens according to understandable and equitable principles, and to establish a system of control," suggested Matthies. And if the golden path is not feasible, you just have to think about roundabout approaches. Numerous institutions or cities are already CO2-free or pursue this goal actively.

Apart from that, every individual in civil society can independently advance climate protection through his or her own behaviour. "Horizontal and vertical responsibility architectures are not contradictory but rather complement each other powerfully," Matthies is convinced. Politics are legitimised by a civil society that supports these ideas precisely, and in return, politics can create standards and provide guidance.

However, given the complexity of the material, many citizens resign, which is what some players in the economy actually want. "There are companies that deliberately manipulate public perception," lamented von Weizsäcker. Their goal is to create confusion among the population and unsettle the citizens with a flood of conflicting opinions. In addition to this, there are stallers at all negotiations who first want all aspects explored to the very last detail before embarking on any attempts to find a resolution.

Mere declarations of intent are not enough
The good thing about international negotiations is that they attract attention. "Politicians have an interest in good publicity," Matthies was convinced. However, before the power of having the better arguments can assert itself, things must be stated clearly and precisely. The more unambiguous and explicit the demands, the better. A major shortcoming of all agreements on the protection of livelihoods is that they are often mere declarations of intent and do not, therefore, constitute enforceable rights. This is not the case with the global economic agreements of the World Trade Organisation. It has a court of arbitration and very effective sanctions. "We should therefore not be surprised that economic interests prevail more strongly than the environmental agreements," commented von Weizsäcker critically.

It was already set down in the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development in 1992 that the population must be informed and involved in decision-making processes - even to the extent of being granted affordable access to jurisdiction. "These are three elements that today could be a good engine for negotiations that are dragging along," von Weizsäcker stated clearly. However, as these principles have to date been dispensed with in many instances, it should come as no surprise when negotiations move forward with the brakes applied.

After all, many international negotiations have now gained momentum and there is hope that humanity will opt for viable solutions. Each and every person is encouraged to get involved, even if the outcome is uncertain. "We do not have the choice between guaranteed success and guaranteed failure, but rather between guaranteed failure and possible success," was the conclusion reached by the panel.

The next dialogue forum will take place on February 24, 2015, on the topic of "Climate change - will Paris rescue the 2°C climate target?" 

CB, 02 February 2015