10 June 2010 - 12 June 2010

Can the multilateral system manage climate change?

Chair: Professor Sir David King FRS FRSC

To round off the conference year before the summer break, Ditchley chose a subject with the greatest range of complex interlinkages of all: climate change and the capacity of the international system to deal with it.  Not only was the canvas an ambitiously wide one, but there could be no prospect of consensus on either the analysis of the current situation or the prescription for what should follow next.  Nonetheless the degree of expertise around the table and the commitment of the participants to finding a sensible route forward made this a fascinating and in many ways a constructive debate.  While we lacked a fully representative range of views from both the emerging and the poorer countries, the depth of knowledge available on the whole climate change scene ensured a comprehensive and relevant discussion. 

The purpose of the event was twofold:  to assess the real implications of the Copenhagen outcome, together with the prospects for the next meetings in Mexico and South Africa;  and to brainstorm on the substance of the negotiations and on the best ways to maximise the effectiveness of the global response.  We tried to look for policy recommendations that were both demanding and realistic, in the knowledge that a focus on next steps only would not be enough if the right choices were not made over the long term as well.  A number of participants underlined the qualitative difference of this set of challenges from any other in our experience, with the possible exception of the nuclear weapons field. 

Throughout the discussion we were conscious of the tensions inherent in the subject: between national policy choices and the global imperative;  between the need to remain politically realistic and the alarming consequences of a failure scenario;  and between the foreseeable time frame and the unforeseen effects on future generations if we underestimated the urgency of the problem.  In these respects Copenhagen was widely regarded as a wake-up call, though some participants thought that it might have been a stronger one if its failures had been more comprehensive, because then the effect on public opinion might have been clearer.  It was pointed out that the deal amongst the four emerging countries and the United States had in most respects been a defensive one, to avoid being pressed in the next stage for something more than they were willing to offer.  But most people took comfort from the fact that the system was not irrevocably broken, and that the more glaring deficiencies of Copenhagen – the failure to set the task in clear terms, the muddled procedures, the mixed messages, the exclusion of civil society and the divergence of national motivations – could all be worked on over the coming period, especially if Cancun was well prepared for and organised. 

This note will attempt to draw out the most important threads of the discussion, while paying respect to the variety of views expressed.  We covered three broad areas:  the nature of current geopolitical trends;  the performance and ongoing value of the international institutions;  and the substance and process of the climate change negotiations.  The conference was not intended to be the place and time to settle on the last of these in any comprehensive mannner, more a chance to understand the enormity of what the international community was trying to take on.  Nevertheless we managed to tease out a number of priorities for the future which might be valuable if fed back into policy-making circles. 

We were in no doubt that the geopolitical scene had changed irrevocably from the generation when most of the current international institutions had been established.  The western world no longer controlled the agenda, nor were there clear dividing lines between north and south or east and west.  Even the distinction between developed and developing worlds needed qualification, as many of the emerging economies showed characteristics of both industrialising and under-developed societies, and needed to be distinguished from the still significant number of countries suffering from undisguised poverty.  For all our recognition of the pervasiveness of globalisation, we still had not come to terms with the steady increase in humankind’s average lifespan or the addition of a billion to the world population every twelve years.  We tended to focus on global problems in their own sectors, at the expense of macroscopic and strategic analysis.  Most people around the table felt that this meant the world was under-prepared for managing the global commons.  Unless we corrected the situation, the implications would be hitting us with such intensity that they might be overwhelming.

The climate change challenge was considered to be the most obvious example of the threat to our global capabilities.  It was described as “a global, but not yet a multilateral issue”.  For almost everyone in the room, the science was clear enough for the size of the problem not to be disputed: inaction would be foolish.  But the public was not yet so convinced of the urgency that politicians had to face up to the policy consequences now.  

As if the mix of climate-changing phenomena was not complicated enough, we found there were a number of features in international attitudes and relationships which added to the difficulties:  the calls for “climate justice”  in assigning responsibility for the carbon already in the atmosphere;  residual resentment about the way in which the industrialised powers had built their progress on exploitation of others;  the growing tendency of nation states in current circumstances to prioritise their own subjective interests over the wider collective;  and the uncertain but powerful effect of open communications and freedom of information.  Political structures had not yet shown themselves prepared for that degree of strategic complexity.  Many participants saw a tipping point approaching between a zero-sum competition for resources and an acceptance that management of the collective interest had to be given priority.  Political leaders would not be able by themselves to design a change of course in a top-down manner, unless at the same time there was a welling-up of concern from the grass roots that new approaches were required.  Our thoughts on policy prescriptions therefore took account of this need for top-down and bottom-up to be combined. 

This affected our view of whether it would be sensible to go for legally-binding agreements over the next phase.  Copenhagen had shown that a number of influential countries were very wary of this.  Yet it was equally uncertain whether political pledges, even if independently reviewed, would amount to enough of a change.  The evidence of a broadly shared political determination to confront climate change was just not there yet.  So there were a number of voices advocating that it was better to go for less ambitious targets, because they might be more likely to stick.  This dilemma invaded much of the subsequent discussion.

We also discussed whether effective political leadership would be forthcoming in this whole area and, if so, from where.  Since no clear answer came out of the discussion, the response has to be a negative one.  But this was a judgement not directed just at politicians.  We also wondered whether the public at large really cared enough about the subject, or perceived the threat as close enough, to create political impact.  Civil society on its own was not a sufficient force nor was it being allowed into the decision-making.  Yet the discussion recognised how valuable it was that the European Union had begun to set itself targets that would in due course have a real effect in decelerating the increase in carbon emissions.  This seemed to suggest that a collective effort above the level of national capitals might be possible.  Yet two ironies accompanied that thought:  first, the EU had been nowhere to be seen at the Copenhagen denouement;  and second, the EU could be seen as some way behind the United States, and both of them behind emerging countries such as China and India, in the proportion of the GDP per capita they were prepared to invest in new behaviours that changed climate-sensitive activity.  With observations like these, who could maintain that the overall trends were in a positive direction?

We asked whether the multilateral institutions had the capacity to play an influential role.  There was plenty of praise for the United Nations, in its various forms and processes, as having achieved more than any other supranatonal institution in history as a setter of norms, a source of legitimisation and a forum for political exchange.  Yet we were also disappointed that it had not performed better in the specific areas we were examining.  At the macro level, the intergovernmental system at the UN had not adjusted far or quickly enough to absorb the real political changes generated by the redistribution of economic and political power amongst capitals.  Nor had the bodies which dealt with energy and the environment, some twenty-two of them at the present count, been able to handle the specific issues satisfactorily.  There was disappointment in the quality of top managers in the system and in the way the process before and at Copenhagen had been allowed to get so muddled.  We considered briefly whether it might make sense to develop a new global institute to handle climate change, but the majority were unconvinced.  Most participants regarded it as inevitable that the tendency to “minilateralism”, or ad hoc collective action amongst a limited number of  players, would continue and perhaps strengthen into the coming period.  There were frequent references to the G20 in this respect, although there were also important voices in support of a larger group, perhaps up to thirty, on climate change itself.  Even this would still leave the smaller countries, many of whom would be the victims of climate change, unrepresented at the collective policy-making table.  The sensible conclusion out of all of this was that each of these contributing mechanisms must be encouraged to play their best part;  and that, if a cabal of highly influential countries took the lead over the next few years, they must expend considerable effort in consulting and respecting the interests of others.  A number of people felt that the chances of a variable system of this kind working were not all that bad, if the urgency of the threat came through more strongly and if the quality of the dialogue was maintained.  The recent financial and economic crisis, after all, though still ongoing and unpredictable, had generated a number of effective international responses because political leaders had seen no alternative.  If a similar point of focus could be reached on environmental matters, perhaps the response would grow in vigour.

In spite of the compelling and very necessary discussion of the geopolitical context, the core of our debate lay in the discussion on what should be done about climate change.  A crucial disappointment with Copenhagen was that governments, and particularly heads of government, had not really decided beforehand what they wanted out of the meeting.  We were not yet confident that this would look better at Cancun, but we were in no doubt that without a clear determination, in substantive and not just in process terms, of what policy should amount to a sense of drift would continue.  Most participants were content that the focus should be on limiting global warming to a 2o Celsius rise.  This was not ambitious enough for the countries who would be most affected, for instance by sea-level rise;  but we regarded it as the most realistic figure to hammer home.  While the scientists and government negotiators were reasonably clear in their own minds what this would mean in terms of carbon emissions reductions, political leaders and public opinion still appeared to be uncertain.   Although CO2 emissions were not the only criterion needing attention, a global reduction against the current trend was absolutely essential.  Most participants agreed that a price should be placed on carbon at an early date, but the way to do this was disputed.  Should a carbon-pricing regime be global or, because that was such a difficult objective, just partial amongst those prepared to act?  Should it take the form of cap and trade rather than a carbon tax?  If carbon taxes gradually became an element of policy in a growing number of nation states, how should the cash raised be used?  There was a tendency, not least in the working group concentrating on these issues, to think that oblique rather than direct action might be effective:  in other words, less visible measures upstream would be more productive than more visible ones downstream.  There was also an inclination to avoid allowing the markets to set carbon prices freely, which had not worked well so far.  An organised trading system would be necessary and a structure for that would need to be funded.  That was the most likely way in which governments and the corporate sector would be persuaded to make investments in policies, practices and innovations which decelerated the emission of CO2.  We also tended towards the view that fiscal measures which attempted to change behaviour punitively were less likely to succeed than economic incentives to invest in renewables.

Aside from carbon emissions, we were in no doubt that other harmful gases and emissions should not be under-emphasised.  Methane and other noxious gases, black carbon and particulates had to be addressed and innovative approaches to dealing with them were to be encouraged.  We were diverted for a while by a discussion of geo-engineering, the possibilities of which seem to have caught the public imagination in some areas.  But this company was clear that the dangers were likely to be greater than the advantages if it strayed beyond the local level (as for instance, in carbon capture and storage) and that bold thinking in this area should be discouraged.

Rather more pertinent to the debate was the question of whether international agreement on climate change measures, moving forward, should be contained in legally-binding treaties or left to political commitment.  The trade-off between forceful implementation and a state’s willingness to enter into an agreement was a very sensitive area, as Copenhagen had shown.  Again, there was no unanimous view, but participants expressed interest in a continuing system of pledge and review as being most likely to bring a number of significant countries, including the United States, China and India, into a collective system.  Alongside this, the thought was expressed that the European Union, if it could summon up the courage to follow its leadership on intentions with a willingness to take concrete steps, might move to legally-binding targets ahead of the United States and others.  This gave the conference pause for thought, because we could see the usefulness of having a higher target out there, particularly if some were willing to commit to it immediately, which could later be adopted by a more reluctant category of countries when they saw that the disadvantages of inaction were too compelling.  The political risks and economic costs in such an approach, at a time when public opinion was not yet fully on board, were evident.  But we felt that there was something here which deserved very careful consideration: the example set could become compelling and would give the EU a powerful voice in what followed.

Meanwhile, we did not ignore another important aspect of the whole subject, which was adaptation to climate change and mitigation of the effects of it.  Whatever happened on carbon and other climate-changing elements, we (and particularly the poorer countries) would be facing floods, storms, sea level rises and other phenomena which would cause suffering and need significant resources to address.  Institutions such as NATO were already focussed on this area;  and international risk-reduction and humanitarian efforts would increasingly be deployed to deal with them.  In this context in particular we were sharply reminded that funding would be needed in the developing world, some of which had been pledged by donor countries but not yet allocated.  This was an uncomfortable reminder that the huge volume of words expended on environmental issues, to which we were only adding in this conference, would amount to nothing unless a significant amount of painful action followed.

While we realised that the substance had to lead, the process also needed attention.  There were encouraging noises about Mexico’s readiness to prepare for Cancun in a more comprehensive and consultative way than Denmark had done for Copenhagen.  Even if the prescription of something like a G30 on climate change was followed, the need to consult much more widely than that would still be paramount.  There was no reason why the UN machinery should not be central when member states came together, but we felt it was vital that the best possible individuals were found to lead the process in each of its component parts.  As this discussion progressed, the company seemed to tend more and more towards the expectation that, if a global agreement remained a distant target, as seemed likely, the accumulation of agreements amongst smaller number of countries was a sensible way to go.  We just had to recognise that governments, from their own viewpoints, were managing different sorts of risks at different times from each other.  It was in this context that the combination of top-down and bottom-up processes seemed to be the most realistic way forward.  There would also be areas, not least in national policy-making, where an oblique approach was better than a direct one, for instance in terms of economic incentives to change behaviour.  At the same, however, we did not want to lose sight of the overall global objective of setting milestones towards a radically improved situation by 2050, which made the maintenance of ambitious targets for eventual global agreement a fundamental part of the overall structure.

How then should all this be presented for the right effect on public opinion, without which most governments would not generate a sufficient intensity of policy-making?  It seemed to many participants that nothing was more important than understanding the national self-interest for almost every state in reducing the rate of carbon emissions and taking other environmentally friendly measures.  It was also considered sensible to underscore the threat of climate change in security terms, because that was both descriptively true and a compelling argument for constituencies accustomed to hearing their governments give priority to security.  Alongside these arguments, there was also a strong moral case, powerfully voiced during this discussion, that the industrialised world owed something to poorer countries and that this generation owed a clean legacy to future ones.  Civil society, religious groups, parliamentarians and other parts of the private sector should bring these points forcefully into the debate, to convince a wider number of people that, even if they believed that the science was not yet clear enough, it was wrong to risk complacency.  Moreover, the linkages with the provision of energy, food, water and other vital resources for human existence were so increasingly clear that the case for demanding a strategic approach from governments could only become more compelling with time.

The conference covered a good deal more detail to support these lines of thinking.  Most participants were disappointed that the low-hanging fruit in energy and environmental policy had not yet been adequately collected, in terms of energy conservation, sensible innovation such as carbon capture and storage, capacity building in the developing world and other areas where the problems should not be too great.  We also had a good conversation about the preparedness of the emerging countries, and particularly China and India, to develop strategic approaches in their own national interest even if their reluctance to follow western-led approaches remained very clear. 

Above all, we were without exception convinced of the urgency of the issue.  So far, political leadership had not appeared to respond with sufficient determination.  Unless this changed, the problems would only grow.  We hoped that discussions like ours would bring out the probability that we were approaching a tipping point, a process of cultural transition, which could create an interaction between technological advance and political vigour which might at last make a difference.  It was time for the whole international process, we felt, from Rio to Kyoto to Cancun and onwards, to accumulate a catalytic change of attitude.  Only then would the necessary long-term vision be there.

Ditchley is grateful to this whole company for the remarkable frankness and commitment of this discussion.  We were particularly well served by the determination of our Chairman, with his great experience on this subject, to focus on the things which really mattered.  More than on any other subject which Ditchley has treated recently, we shall all be waiting with some apprehension to see what happens next.

This Note reflects the Director’s personal impressions of the conference.  No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.


Chair : Professor Sir David King FRS FRSC
Director, Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, University of Oxford (2008-);   Director of Research in Physical Chemistry, University of Cambridge;  President, Collegio Carlo Alberto, Turin, Italy;  Adviser to President Kagame of Rwanda;  Adviser on African Development to the European Commissioners;  Senior Science Adviser to UBS;  Chancellor, University of Liverpool.  A Governor, The Ditchley Foundation.

Dr Michael Fullilove

Director, Global Issues Programme, Lowy Institute for International Policy, Sydney (2003-);  Nonresident Senior Fellow in Foreign Policy, The Brookings Institution, Washington DC (2009-).

Mr George Anderson

President and CEO, Forum of Federations, Ottawa (2005-).  Formerly:  Canadian Federal Public Service.
Ms Louise Fréchette
Distinguished Fellow, Centre for International Governance Innovation, Waterloo, Ontario (2006-).  Formerly:  Deputy Secretary-General, UN Secretariat (1998-2006).  A Member of the Program Advisory Committee, The Canadian Ditchley Foundation.
Ms Alysia Garmulewicz
2009 Rhodes Scholar;  Candidate MPhil in Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford.
Dr Michael Levi
David M Rubenstein Senior Fellow for Energy and the Environment and Director, Program on Energy Security and Climate Change, Council on Foreign Relations, New York (2008-).
Professor Gordon McBean CM FRSC
Professor and Director Policy Studies, Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction, Departments of Geography and Political Science, The University of Western Ontario;  Chair, Science Committee, Integrated Research on Disaster Risk;  President, START International;  Convening Lead Author, IPCC Special Report on Climate Extremes.
Ms Colleen Swords
Associate Deputy Minister, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada.  Formerly:  Assistant Deputy Minister, Europe, Middle East, Maghreb, Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada (DFAIT).

Dr Mohamed El-Ashry

Senior Fellow, UN Foundation;  Facilitator, Global Leadership for Climate Action.  Formerly:  CEO and Chairman, Global Environment Facility. 

Mr Benjamin Görlach

Senior Fellow, Head of Economics and Policy Assessment, Ecologic Institute, Berlin.  Formerly: German Emissions Trading Authority, Federal Environment Agency (2007-08);  Environmental Economist, Ecologic (2002-07).

HE Mr Kofi Annan GCMG

Chairman, Kofi Annan Foundation;  Chairman:  Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (2007-);  Chairman, Africa Progress Panel;  Member, Board of Directors, UN Foundation (2007-);  Member, Foundation Board, World Economic Forum.  Formerly:  Secretary-General, United Nations (1997 2006). 

Dr Dimitrios Kyriakou

Director, Policy Research, Salzburg Global Seminar;  Chief Economist, Institute for Prospective Technological Studies, European Commission.  Formerly:  University Professor, Spain, Greece and USA.

Mr Sandeep Sengupta

DPhil candidate, International Relations, Merton College, Oxford (2006-). Formerly: Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India (2009); Projects Officer, International Union for the Conservation of Nature, Geneva (2003-06).

Dr Jamie Shea

NATO:  Director of Policy Planning, Private Office of the Secretary-General (2005-).  Formerly:  Deputy Assistant Secretary General for External Relations, Public Diplomatic Division (2003-05).

The Rt Hon Margaret Beckett MP

Member of Parliament (Labour), Derby South (1983-).  Formerly:  Minister of State (Housing and Planning), Department for Communities and Local Government (2008-09);  Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (2006-07).  A Governor, The Ditchley Foundation.
Mr Tom Burke CBE
Senior Adviser to the Foreign Secretary’s Special Representative on Climate Change;  Founding Director, E3G, Third Generation Environmentalism;  Environmental Policy Adviser Rio Tinto plc;  Visiting Professor, Imperial and University Colleges, London.
Professor David Cope
Director, Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (1998-);  Life Member, Clare Hall, University of Cambridge.  Formerly:  Professor, Energy and Resource Economics, Doshisha University, Kyoto (1997-98).
Mr Alex Evans
Non-Resident Fellow, Center on International Cooperation, New York University.
Dr David Frame
Deputy Director, Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, University of Oxford;  Visiting Lecturer, Department of Physics, University of Oxford;  College Lecturer in Geography, Jesus College, Oxford.
Professor Michael Grubb
Chair, Climate Strategies, University of Cambridge;  Senior Research Associate, Faculty of Economics, University of Cambridge;  Member, UK Climate Change Committee (2008-).
Mr Martin Lees
Club of Rome, Switzerland (former Secretary-General) (2008-);  Adviser to the Government of China on climate change;  Founder, China Council for International Cooperation on Environment and Development.
Mr Edward Mortimer CMG
Senior Vice-President and Chief Programme Officer, Salzburg Global Seminar
(2008-).  Formerly:  Fellow, All Souls College, Oxford (2006-08) (1984-86) (1965-72),  Chief Speechwriter to the Secretary-General, United Nations (1998-2006);.  A Governor, The Ditchley Foundation.
Professor Gwyn Prins
Research Professor, London School of Economics (LSE) (2000-);  Director, LSE Mackinder Programme for the study of long wave events (2003-).  Formerly:  Alliance Research Professor, LSE and Columbia University, New York (2002-07).
The Rt Hon Lord Robertson of Port Ellen KT GCMG Hon FRSE
Deputy Chairman, TNK-BP;  Non-Executive Chairman, Cable and Wireless International;  Senior Counsellor, The Cohen Group, Washington DC;  Chair, Commission on National Security (IPPR) (2007-);  Joint President, Atlantic Council of the UK;  Chairman, Commission on Global Road Safety (2006-);  Joint President, Chatham House (2001-).  Chairman of the Council of Management, The Ditchley Foundation.
Ms Joan Ruddock MP
Member of Parliament (Labour), Lewisham Deptford (1987-).  Formerly:  Minister of State for Climate Change and Energy, Department of Energy and Climate Change (2009-10).
Sir Crispin Tickell GCMG KCVO
Director, Policy Foresight Programme, University of Oxford (2006-).  Formerly:  Chancellor, University of Kent (1996-2006);  Chairman, Climate Institute of Washington DC (1990-2002);  Warden, Green College, Oxford (1990-97);  HM Diplomatic Service (1954-90).  Author.  A Governor and Member of the Council of Management, The Ditchley Foundation.
Mr Oliver Tickell
Founder, Kyoto2.org;  Freelance Journalist;  Founding Partner, Oxford Climate Associates;  Member, Oxford Geoengineering Institute;  Campaigner on the environment and health issues.  Author.

Ms Bernice Lee

Research Director, Energy, Environment and Resource Governance, Chatham House (2008-).  Formerly:  Team Leader, Interdependencies on Energy and Climate Security for China and Europe Project, Chatham House (2007).

Dr Matthew Burrows

Counselor (2007-) and Director, Analysis and Production Staff (2010-, 2003-07), National Intelligence Council.  Member, Senior Analyst Service, Directorate of Intelligence.
Mr George Deikun
UN Habitat Acting Director and Senior Policy and Programming Advisor, UN Habitat Geneva Office.
Dr James Garvey
Secretary, The Royal Institute of Philosophy, London (2000-);  Environmental Ethicist and Author.
Dr Arunabha Ghosh
CEO-designate, Council on Energy, Environment and Water, New Delhi (Sep 2010-);  Oxford-Princeton Global Leaders Fellow, Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton, New Jersey (2008-Aug 2010).
Dr David Gordon
Head of Research and Director, Global Macro Analysis, Eurasia Group, Washington DC.  Formerly:  Director of Policy Planning, US Department of State (2007-09);  Vice Chairman, US National Intelligence Council (2004-07).
Colonel Thomas Greenwood US Marine Corps (Ret)
Director, Strategic Planning, National Security Staff, The White House (2009-).  Formerly:  Analyst, Institute for Defense Analyses (2008-09).  Adjunct Professor, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service (2008-09).
Senator Gary Hart
Scholar in Residence, School of Public Affairs, University of Colorado Denver, Co-Chair, US-Russia Commission;  Vice Chair, Homeland Security Advisory Council;  Chair, American Security Project.
Mr Gary Horlick
Attorney-at-Law, Washington DC;  Member, Council on Foreign Relations;  Lecturer in International Trade Law, Yale, Georgetown and Berne Universities.
The Honorable Frank E Loy
Board Chair, Population Services International, Washington DC.  Formerly:  Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs (1998-2001);  Board Member:  Environmental Defense Fund;  Pew Center for Global Climate Change;  The Nature Conservancy.
The Honorable Strobe Talbott
President, The Brookings Institution, Washington (2002-).  Formerly:  Founding Director, The Yale Center for the Study of Globalization (2001-02);  Deputy Secretary of State, US Department of State (1994-2001).
Mr David Turnbull
Director, Climate Action Network - International, Washington DC (2008-);  Advisor, Global Campaign for Climate Action;  Member, Board of Directors, SustainUS