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Global campaign to combat climate change has become too complex to manage, study suggests

March 12, 2014

For more information, contact: Ben Haimowitz , (212) 233-6170, press@aom.org

Climate change has been much in the news since Secretary of State Kerry's attack last month against "a tiny minority of shoddy scientists...and extreme ideologues" sparked a war of words between skeptics and believers. Even Warren Buffett has been drawn in, telling CNBC that, while the question of climate change "deserves lots of attention," insurance rates are no higher now than they were five years ago and that over this spell the US has been "remarkably free of hurricanes."

Yet, for all the intensity of the disagreements this issue continues to evoke, a new paper, applying a management perspective to global initiatives in this field, suggests that much of the current debates over how real climate change is and what's causing it are beside the point.

The authors of the study in the current issue of the Academy of Management Journal  harbor no doubts about the reality of climate change, the critical role of greenhouse gases, or the seriousness of the challenge that these represent. Yet, the prospects for effective global policy initiatives to deal with the problem have been diminishing, they find, raising doubts about the likelihood of significant progress in the near future.

Referring to Conferences of Parties (COPs), the global meetings that have been held since 1995 under the auspices of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the study asks, "Given widespread agreement that urgent action is required, why have the 18 COPs to date failed to bring about regulations to combat human-induced climate change?" Although early meetings "facilitated institutional change by allowing for both trust-building and the creation of momentum," they write, in time conferences grew increasingly fragmented and "ceased to be interactionally open...as diverse actors with vested interests entered the field, power coalitions shifted, and the events became platforms for issues not strictly related to emission reduction."

In sum, the study concludes," more and more actors find COP participation useful for their purposes, but their activity is increasingly disconnected from the issue of mitigating climate change."

"Sometimes I just find myself shaking my head after talking to participants in recent COPs," comments Bettina B. F. Wittneben of Oxford University's Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, who co-authored the new study with Elke Schüssler of Freie Universitat Berlin and Charle-Clemens Rüling of Grenoble Ecole de Management. "They'll come back from the meetings simply brimming with enthusiasm about the networking they've done, the contacts they've made, the new ideas about their research they had or the new angles to lobbying they thought of. But ask what progress was made in terms of global policy initiatives, and all you get is a shrug."

In the words of the paper, meetings have shifted from being "catalysts of change to mechanisms of field maintenance."

The study is based on 39 interviews with COP participants and other experts on climate policy, in addition to analysis of extensive documentary sources, including reports, press releases and other documents of the UNFCCC, scholarly articles, detailed contemporary accounts of all 17 COPs between 1995 and 2011, and New York Times  press reports of the meetings. Additionally, Dr. Wittneben attended six COPs (one of them also attended by Prof. Schüssler) plus seven other major international climate-policy events, in a career that has included positions with the UNFCCC secretariat, various European governments, and academic and policy institutes.

The increasing complexity of the field -- and the frustrations attendant on it -- emerges in the comment from an interview with a delegate at COP 14, held in Poznan, Poland in 2008: "There are more and more parallel processes and everything must be negotiated at the same time. The number of ... negotiation issues has increased and many of these issues ... are discussed in different places at the same time. That is very inefficient; there are simply too many people involved ... The delegations become so large that only very few people understand the whole thing."

The following year, the authors observe, these problems culminated in the "spectacular logistical breakdown" at COP 15 in Copenhagen, which was billed in advanced as Hopenhagen but characterized in retrospect as Nopenhagen and Brokenhagen. The 27,000 registered delegates at the meeting, they note, represented only about two thirds of the 40,000 nominated but three times the COP average of about 9,000 since 1995 and almost double the 15,000 capacity of the conference venue. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs), heretofore an essential part of the process, seethed at being excluded from the negotiations ("How can we keep up the pressure when we do not know what is going on and are not even allowed near the building?" one registrant complained) while negotiation participants struggled with 200 pages of draft text, including thousands of bracketed alternative wordings, that were supposed to serve as the basis for an agreement. In the end the negotiators gave up on that text in favor of a brief voluntary agreement, the "Copenhagen Accords," which, however, failed to receive consensual approval.

Asked whether the problems that emerged so devastatingly at Copenhagen will continue to plague the global climate-change effort, Dr. Wittneben demurs, noting that the UN has put limits on NGO attendance for the forthcoming high-stakes meeting in Paris next year but also conceding that this makes the process less democratic. Another positive development, she says, is that "the political climate in Paris will be more realistic -- no Obama bubble as there was in Copenhagen, which was held shortly after his inauguration."

In sum, she believes that Paris will be more like Kyoto than Copenhagen, referring to the 1997 COP that represented a landmark in progress. "My guess is that, in contrast to Copenhagen, there will be a treaty but also that it will be fairly weak, reflecting what countries have already decided to do rather than pushing them to do more, as Kyoto did."

She adds in conclusion: "Secretary Kerry's speech may have energized people, and it is possible that a way will be found through the systemic problems that our paper identifies. Still, every year has become more difficult, even as the effects of climate change become more evident."

The paper, "On Melting Summits: The Limitations ofField-Configuring Events as Catalysts of Change inTransnational Climate Policy," is in the February/March issue of the Academy of Management Journal. This peer-reviewed publication is published every other month by the Academy, which, with about 18,000 members in 115 countries, is the largest organization in the world devoted to management research and teaching. The Academy's other publications are The Academy of Management Review, Academy of Management Perspectives, Academy of Management Learning and Education,and Academy of Management Annals  .A sixth publication, Academy of Management Discoveries,  is currently accepting submissions and will begin publishing in January 2015.

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