What are the Rules of Engagement in Copenhagen?

December 8, 2009 //

By Pia Infante

As the UN Conference on Climate Change in Copenhagen kicks off a two-week gathering of 110 world leaders and roughly 15,000 delegates, I must admit that I’m intensely fascinated about the mechanisms for dialogue and decision-making at an event that some analysts have already predicted will fall quite short of a unilaterally signed treaty to effectively reduce carbon emissions by 2020.  Oh, to be a fly on the wall somewhere among the 60,000 square meters of the Bella Center, the largest conference center in Scandinavia. 

The conference agenda discloses few process secrets, looking very much like many conference programs  – there are opening plenaries, televised speakers and panels, document reviews, elections within the official delegate body, and a mixer at the end of the day.  There is also a concurrent body of work  that runs alongside the official delegate sessions described as “ad hoc working groups and subsidiary parties” that seek to influence the official proceedings much like lobbyists.  I imagine that this is where the action is if you are one of the over 10,000 conference participants who are not government delegates or special appointees.  There’s a telltale note at the bottom of each agenda page, an appeal for those groups to streamline the amount of attention they demand:  “In order to complete the plenary meetings as expeditiously as possible, and allow the ad hoc working groups and subsidiary bodies to begin work without delay, the President appeals to Parties to limit statements to those from groups.”  Yet, these are potentially the groups most representing the voices of the least heard among the delegate din, groups like “The Alliance of Small Island States” or the “The Least Developed Countries Working Group.”

My anxiety and interest are particularly piqued, given the high stakes for humanity and what Changhua Wu (Greater China Director of The Climate Group) describes, in an environment 360 article, as an epically “ongoing lack of trust between the major (read US, China, EU, India, Japan) parties” in the context of a global recession.  An over simplified characterization might be something like the countdown to global warming meltdown vs. the current economic meltdown, or science vs. economics/politics.  In my experience, trust requires relationship building over time – I wonder how this happens on the global problem solving stage.  I’d like to trust that there is powerful relational work happening within the conference.  It might behoove me to set aside my conference skepticism and be open to the miraculous in what appear to be pre-scripted settings.

My attention is still riveted on the “how” of this endeavor.  How does an event of this nature actually engender authentic relationship, dialogue, and trust?  How does it truly attend to problem solving at such an immense scale?  Does the technology embedded in the Copenhagen conference (all sessions are streamed live then digitally accessible within an hour after closing, iPhone and hand-held apps synced to the conference, the inevitably lightning quick circuit of a text leak) increase the possibility for public dialogue?

I want to know what the rules of engagement are – how are they similar or different from what happens in the communities and projects of our grante
?   How might we influence or learn from the Key Players in the negotiations?  Where do the UN conference planners lag behind meeting architecture innovation and where are they ahead of the curve?  How might more of us participate in influencing what happens in decision making at this level?


  1. Doktor Käseblock on December 9, 2009 at 9:28 pm

    Excellent and interesting questions, really about "conferences" in general. I have not followed this issue closely, but I keep fairly up to date with current events and I couldn't say what the purpose of Copenhagen even is: is it to agree on new binding standards, a la the Montreal Protocol which cut CFC emissions? Or is it more of an academic-type conference, designed to foster relationships and information sharing.

    I admit I have been not paying much attention to the news over the last two weeks–just scanning the headlines and listening to half an hour or so of NPR –so perhaps the fault is mine.

  2. Pia on December 10, 2009 at 11:38 am

    Thanks, Chris! I agree there is much more that can be said about conferences in general and what the ROI is on them.

    Here's what the New York Times said about the overall goal of the conference: November 14, 2009, the New York Times announced that "President Obama and other world leaders have decided to put off the difficult task of reaching a climate change agreement… agreeing instead to make it the mission of the Copenhagen conference to reach a less specific “politically binding” agreement that would punt the most difficult issues into the future." To me that sounds closer to what you wrote about a conference designed to foster relationships and information sharing.

    I'm still quite intrigued as to how that is being scaffolded and engendered by the structures of the gathering…

  3. Jenny Bedell-Stiles on December 11, 2009 at 10:38 am

    These are awesome questions! What youo're getting at is a HUGE and complicated answer. This here is a great resource that can answer many of your inquiries: http://www.usclimatenetwork.org/policy/copenhagen-climate-negotiations-briefing-book Another resource is this sweet and recent NYT article on who the players are in Copenhagen: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2009/12/05/world/climate-graphic-players.html

    Hope that helps.

    And just for kicks, here are a few videos and blogs of students I work with who are there at COP15:

  4. Pia on December 11, 2009 at 7:31 pm

    Jenny ~ these links are super informative, I'm just starting to explore them and conceptualize what's actually going on in Copenhagen… Thank you!