Reflections on “Make It Work” – A COP21 Simulation

Whitney discovers how institutional structures can affect negotiation in a mock COP21 conference

For a few days at the end of May 2015 in Paris, around 200 students across the globe took part in a public simulation of the UNFCCC international climate negotiations, COP21, which will take place in Paris in December. Among the group were three students from the University of Sydney who have reflected on the event, its effectiveness and how climate change action can be brought about.

In this first blog, Whitney Duan, a third year student with a Philosophy major, ponders about how structures of institutions can affect negotiation.

In a Parisian theatre whilst gagging on the excessive smoke-machine use, I was being applauded by spectators at the closing ceremony of the “Make It Work” COP21 Simulation. Yet, as each of the delegations got up to say something with a double-entendre along the lines of “yes, we made it work”, I felt profoundly uncomfortable. Did we make it work?

After six conference days of debating the semantics of deforestation, negotiating GHG emissions and the endless political struggles between developed and developing nations, we had come to the strange conclusion that the 2-degree limit was negotiable. In the final draft of the negotiating text, all figures around energy consumption were vague, with all language non-binding. We had begun at the beginning of the week with each of the 41 delegations affirming their commitment to the 2-degree limit – all negotiations hinged on the urgency that if the global average temperature exceeded 2 degrees by 2100, the earth along with its inhabitants would suffer disastrous consequences.

The “Make It Work” conference wasn’t just a COP21 simulation – its main purpose was to find an alternative mode of negotiation that actually works. After the failure that was Copenhagen in 2009, Sciences Po launched an experimental “pre-enactment” that approached the negotiations with a critical mind. The new process saw the inclusion of non-state delegations including trans-boundary communities and natural entities, and delegations represented by affected stakeholders rather than a political body. To get participants re-thinking innovatively, a radical tone was set from the first day; SPEAP (The Program of Experimentation in Art and Politics) had transformed the theatre into a series of artful informal spaces that encouraged us to think outside of established UN structures.

It all seemed to be working until the negotiating text was handed out; it had become obvious that the simulation hadn’t strayed very far from the traditional modes of negotiations that it vehemently accused of having failed previous UN climate talks. We quickly reverted back to operating within the confines UNFCCC framework that fundamentally disallowed radical thinking. It was only halfway through the simulation did we realise that our negotiations weren’t breaking any ground because they still revolved around the UN structure. Frustrated participants attempted to begin a vision-centred process including writing the articles in hypothetical stories from the perspective of climate change victims. Nevertheless, these efforts were short-lived as the other delegates considered it an “illegitimate” procedure compared to the moderated sessions and legal text of the UNFCCC format. Expressions in the form of art, theatre or narrative were deemed “unrealistic” solutions without the proper legalistic format to be used in future UN conferences.

There doesn’t seem to be much hope for December’s conference; the foundations of the COP fundamentally deal with climate change the wrong way, silencing important voices and amplifying the ones that shouldn’t matter. Rather, the solution isn’t in politics and conferences. Although ineffective, what the “Make It Work” conference did teach us was the importance of representing the stakeholders affected by climate change. Real change won’t start in a conference room. It will start from a cinema showing a film by a radical environmental filmmaker, in online spheres that connect us beyond boundaries, and in classrooms teaching about the critical importance of climate change action – and therein lies the hope.


Whitney has a keen interest in practical ethics and tweets at @whitneyduan.

Image: Whitney Duan