Distraction Free Reading

On Observing: Reflections on UN Climate Policy Negotiations from Paris to the Present

Observe (verb)

  1. notice or perceive (something) and register it as being significant.
    1. watch (someone or something) carefully and attentively.
    2. take note of or detect (something) in the course of a scientific study.
  2. make a remark.
  3. fulfill or comply with (a social, legal, ethical, or religious obligation).
    1. maintain (silence) in compliance with a rule or custom, or temporarily as a mark of respect.
    2. perform or take part in (a rite or ceremony).
    3. celebrate or acknowledge (an anniversary).

Source: Oxford Languages (Accessed: March 3, 2024) www.google.com.

From COP 21 to COP 28

Nearly every year since 1994,[1] representatives from 198 nations have gathered at the annual meeting of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), known as the Conference of the Parties (COP), to discuss how to address the immense and intractable challenge of anthropogenic climate change. Alongside these national representatives, thousands of participants from environmental and social non-governmental organizations (NGOs), businesses, local governments, Indigenous nations, research institutions, and trade organizations attentively watch the course of the negotiations. These attendees are officially known as “Observers.”

I first joined these meetings as an Observer in 2014 at COP 20 in Lima, Peru. The following year in Paris, France, I participated in the sprawling COP 21 negotiations where the Paris Agreement was adopted by participating countries. Then, eight years later, I returned for COP 28 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Given this long gap of time, I was able to consider: What has changed from COP 21 to COP 28? How do evolving global conditions influence the process? And what does the act of observing allow within multilateral spaces and the policy-making process?

The Promise of Paris

At COP 21, the Paris Agreement represented a moment of profound hope coupled with the recognition that much more work needed to be done to preserve the integrity of the global environmental system. The Agreement encompassed several notable accomplishments in global treaty-making. Prior to Paris, the UNFCCC had largely operated on a bifurcated system in which so-called “developed” countries were charged with the task of decarbonization while “developing” countries were able to continue investing in high-emissions industries to build their economies, which was widely seen as necessary to support the well-being of their populations.[2] This developed/developing country dichotomy was a key feature of previous global climate accords like the Kyoto Protocol of 1997, but by the time COP 21 rolled around in 2015, the world had changed so dramatically that these longstanding categories no longer held true. With major emerging economies like China, India, Russia, Indonesia, and Brazil becoming among the largest global emitters of Greenhouse Gases (GHGs),[3] a stalemate plagued the UNFCCC negotiations following Kyoto in which both sides refused to budge unless the other side made concessions. Part of the miracle of Paris was that it broke this stalemate by requiring every country to come up with its own voluntary commitments to reduce GHG emissions based on its capabilities and national circumstances (these commitments are known as “Nationally Determined Contributions” or NDCs). Yet voluntary commitments can leave the door open to free-riders, so the Paris Agreement included accountability measures such as strong requirements for transparency and emissions reporting. It also included recurring review cycles to take stock of countries’ progress and “ratchet up” ambition. These periodic cycles are known as “Global Stocktakes.” The first Global Stocktake concluded last December at COP 28 in Dubai.[4]

COP 28: Oil Everywhere in Expo City

In 2015, a record setting 45,000 attendees participated in the negotiations at COP 21, which was held in a sprawling airport-turned-conference venue on the edge of Paris called Le Bourget. Climate scientists and other researchers shared their latest findings in a packed schedule of presentations called “Side Events,” while delegations of country officials bounced between negotiating rooms and members of the media buzzed around the venue halls. Every moment of every day people were strategizing—swapping the latest “intel” as they passed each other in the hallways, multitasking across devices as they absorbed new information and formulated how it might influence the rapidly evolving policy negotiations. Since everyone had at least five places to be at any given time, the objective was to work collectively to keep a finger on the pulse of all that was happening. Like a beehive vibrating with activity, the massive venue was a site of controlled chaos—a delicate choreography of rapid movement and careful attention.

Rows of palm trees and indiscriminate national flags frame a pedestrian walkway where people in suits and business attire are standing and walking. The walkway leads to a white building with a rounded, dome-like center area. The sun makes a white circle in the light blue sky.

The entrance of Expo City, the event venue where COP 28 was held in Dubai, UAE in November and December 2023. Photo by Katie Foster.

COP 28, in contrast, was held in a bloated venue called Expo City on the desert outskirts of Dubai and had ballooned to an outrageous 85,000 participants. A record shattering 2,400 of these were lobbyists for the fossil fuel industry. Throughout the venue, many participants seemed more concerned about chasing finances than about the climate. With a vibe more like a trade show than a UN conference, tech entrepreneurs pitched their latest quick-fix “solutions” to the impending crisis, at times offering up non-consenting locales in the Global South as the testing ground for their dubious unproven interventions. The Side Events had a much smaller footprint than in Paris; the number of climate scientists had dwindled. The sheer size of the event venue meant that the typical “interventions” held by civil society organizations to draw attention to notable aspects of the negotiations, like the Climate Action Network’s comedic name-and-shame presentation of the “Fossil of the Day” award to the country who is doing the worst for the climate, were tucked away in the corners.

It was clear that fossil fuel industries saw progress on global climate policy as an existential threat to their bottom line, a twisted irony given the looming threat of climate change to the existence of countries and industries globally. COP 28 was the second of three COPs in a row to be hosted by petrostates: Egypt in 2022, UAE in 2023, and Azerbaijan in 2024. The CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, Sultan Al Jaber, was selected as President of COP 28 despite his overt conflicts of interest. Rather than focus attention on increasing global ambition toward decarbonization, the COP 28 Presidency poured its resources into slick public relations firms and marketing campaigns, promising to be the “most inclusive COP ever!” Meanwhile, a series of leaked letters from OPEC[5] revealed its PR plan: push the language of “unabated emissions” rather than a global fossil-fuel phase-out, distract attention by promoting unscaled technologies like carbon capture and storage (CCS), and prolong global dependency on oil by investing in gas-powered vehicles and infrastructure in Africa and other emerging regional economies.

Nature is (Finally) Having Its Moment

Despite the heavy presence of oil lobbyists, PR firms, and tech entrepreneurs at COP 28, the old guard of scientists, dedicated observers, and career negotiators lingered throughout the space. Within this context, another emerging trend in the UNFCCC meetings became apparent: the interlinkage of global priorities to address the “triple planetary crisis” by protecting biodiversity, quelling pollution, and reversing the negative impacts to the climate system.  The increased use of language around ecological restoration and healing and the growing adoption of measures that center natural processes and ecological principles in urban design and infrastructure planning exemplify this trend.

Another notable discursive shift is the widespread use of the term “human-centered approach” in reference to actions which incorporate local needs, values, and knowledges. While the greater attention to meaningful stakeholder engagement and participatory processes is commendable, the anthropocentrism of that phrase is overt. What if, instead, we adopted a nature-centered approach? If the Earth was a central consideration within our decision-making processes, would we be in this planetary mess? Or let us consider what would happen if we instead employed a community-centered approach, where we considered our community to be the broad network of human and other-than-human beings with whom we live, share space, and engage in mutual systems of dependence. Would our priorities evolve alongside our capacity to empathize?

Culture is Slowly Gaining Traction, Too

Of course, people have been solving problems using nature-centered and community-centered approaches for millennia. In the contemporary era, some can lose sight of the fact that 99.99999…% of human history and pre-history has occurred without access to modern conveniences like air conditioning, refrigerators, or the internal combustion engine. It was human ingenuity and careful attention to ecological conditions that enabled people to weather the elements, preserve foods, or traverse great distances without such affordances. It is not to say that modern devices should be eschewed. But there is a vast amount of ancient wisdom that can be harnessed and interwoven with contemporary design principles to achieve locally adapted, highly efficient responses to present-day climate challenges. A panel organized by the Climate Heritage Network at COP 28 highlighted examples of architectural features that are adept at solving local climate problems. One talk described traditional buildings in East Asia that use central atriums with shallow pools and lofted ceilings to create powerful natural evaporative cooling. Another illustrative example are Middle Eastern heritage sites that use tall geometric screened outer walls to enable airflow, increase shade, and protect buildings from the erosive force of sun and sand—a stark contrast to the glass and metal office buildings of Dubai that must blast the AC to counteract their incredible heat absorption throughout the day. Throughout the world, we must remember that landscapes include their people and people are of their landscapes. The triple planetary crisis might be global in scope, but its solutions, natural and cultural, are local.

Global Context: Wars and Debt

This year, several prominent global issues had an outsized effect on the negotiation space. Foremost was the war in Gaza. Despite the geographic distance from the fighting, that COP 28 was held in an Arab state made the issue extremely proximate. As the conference began, a ceasefire was underway, Israeli hostages were being released, and the delivery of humanitarian aid to Palestinians was rising in the enclave. But within a few days, the ceasefire dissolved and the incredible amount of human suffering that commenced cast a dark pall over the negotiations. Activists from around the globe stood in solidarity with representatives from Palestine. Chants of “Ceasefire now!” rang out across the marching masses as thousands gathered for a demonstration within the venue for the entwined causes of peace and the preservation of a thriving world.

Rows of men and women stand closely, holding signs including "Right of Return" and "Climate Justice Now" in green, red, and black lettering. The group stands behind a black horizontal sign that reads "Ceasefire Now!" in English and Arabic. A woman in white with a plant in one hand and a microphone in the other stands in front of the sign.

A demonstration in the conference venue showed the intwined messages of peace and climate action. Photo by Katie Foster.

In the face of imminent threats to life like starvation or falling bombs, discussions of slow-moving, global-scale disasters tend to fade. And yet, the atrocities of war are intimately tied to the climate crisis. Bombs are toxic. Weapons and ammunitions are extremely resource intensive. War is a terror that echoes across generations, its impacts ripple out in multiple dimensions. At some point, the rubble and cratered landscape will need to be rebuilt with fresh concrete and new wiring; the violent scars upon body, mind, soul, people, place, and culture will need to be mended. Yet, countries refuse to calculate the climate impacts of their militaries, as though they can wave away the profundity of their human and environmental toll with an asterisk on reporting documents. A stable climate is not possible in a war-torn world. Peace is the necessary precondition, the primary purpose.

As a site of geopolitical negotiation, the COPs are highly responsive to contentious histories. At COP 28, delegations from Venezuela, which had just launched an attack on Guyana, and Russia, with its ongoing unprovoked onslaught of Ukraine, were relegated to the far corners of the conference space, becoming the metaphorical ostracized kids in the lunchroom. At the same time, global discussions of crippling national debt and the imminent need for a restructuring of the international lending practices of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund bled into the COP.

On Observing

The climate COPs are so fast paced and furiously busy that a short essay merely scratches the surface of the layered dynamics at play. Yet there is a need for social scientists to be present in the space, to both observe the proceedings and to be observers in the process. This is not simply a passive role but rather an engaged one. Observing not only draws something out of the space. It brings something in. Within the context of the UNFCCC, this serves a variety of simultaneous functions:

Observing as bearing witness;

Observing as a mode accountability;

Observing to influence;

Observing as a catalyst for reflection.

As anthropologists, we are professionally suited to bring insights into multilateral spaces. We are accustomed to interacting across cultures, mediating among divergent viewpoints, identifying how culture shapes norms, and noticing how science and technology reflect and recapitulate certain value systems. We are adept at the act of translation: we bear witness to the lived realities and embodied changes in which abstract decisions are wrought into physical form. Through our interactions with other peoples and places, we are able to consider what might happen should we adopt a deep-time perspective, an Earth-centric approach, and a relationality of care.

While some geographers[6] have aptly argued that there is no such thing as a truly “global” institution, participating in a site where so many people of the world converge is an experience that reorients one’s perspective. Much like the feeling of contemplation that one gets after encountering something ancient, these COPs left me pondering: What remnants of our lives will endure into the future? How will we be remembered? What is our legacy upon this planet?


[1] With the exception of COP 26 in Glasgow, Scotland, which was postponed from 2020 to 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic

[2] In UN speak, developed countries are known as “Annex I” countries while developing countries are “Non-Annex I.”

[3] These countries rank among the highest emitters in total GHG volume. The top countries for cumulative historical emissions are the United States and European Union, while the highest per capita emissions tend to be concentrated among petroleum and coal exporting countries (especially the Gulf States), small islands, and high GDP nations.

[4] To summarize the results of the first Global Stocktake, both the voluntary commitments made by countries (NDCs) and their implementation so far have remained woefully insufficient. Consequently, we are already seeing widespread climate effects and have likely either already entered or are quickly approaching a series of global tipping points. This would mean that the relatively stable climate of the last 10,000 years when human civilization evolved can no longer serve as a reliable predictor of what is to come.

[5] OPEC, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, is an international cartel of 12 oil producing nations primarily located in the Arabian Peninsula and Africa which controls approximately 80% of the world’s oil reserves.

[6] For some insight into geographic debates around the politics of scale and their relation to conceptions of the global, see: Blakey, J. (2021). The politics of scale through Rancière. Progress in Human Geography, 45(4), 623-640. https://doi.org/10.1177/0309132520944487.

This post was curated by Contributing Editor Cydney Seigerman.

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