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Climate change and politics meet at Kyoto Protocol talks

BU students watch international negotiations in action

As world leaders are gathered in Montreal from November 28 to December 9 seeking to protect the environment and ensure that years of delicate negotiations are not undone when the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012, BU students were able to watch international diplomacy at work from ringside seats.

Anthony Patt, a College of Arts and Sciences assistant professor of geology, secured passes for 12 students to attend last weekend’s meetings of the 11th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, a 14-day event where negotiators determine how the next round of talks will be conducted.

“I was a little bit surprised as to just how slow things moved,” says Jordan Winkler, a master’s candidate in the Center for Energy and Environmental Studies energy and environmental analysis program. “I had an idea that these conventions included arguments over sentence structure, but I didn’t think they would center on one word.”

There was a battle over the size of the table at which an informal meeting between negotiators would take place, and whether there would be enough physical space for each country to have one, or more than one, delegate seated. Another battle was over the single word “relevant” in a description of energy technology to be given by wealthy countries to poorer ones; Europe insisted that the technology was “relevant” to the climate change problem, Patt reports, whereas Saudi Arabia insisted that it was not.

While glaciers may be melting faster than parties can agree on how to address climate change, the painstaking process of international negotiations is a large part of what Patt brought his students to see.

“What I hoped students would get out of it is a feeling for how the science of climate change makes its way into public policy process, or fails to,” Patt says. “What arguments do negotiators use to justify their positions? There are so many different perspectives from people who work on climate change. At this conference, more than anywhere else, you get a feeling for that.”

There was more to learn about international relations than about climate change during the talks, Patt says, but the event also includes a series of presentations from nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) with a wide variety of missions, such as influencing policy or industry, and academic researchers who pay little attention to policy.

“At BU, the students are exposed to purely the science side, and learn about the policy side, but to see all the different roles acted out at the most important meeting of the year,” he says, is an important perspective.

The Kyoto Protocol went into effect in 2005, after it was ratified by Russia. The United States and Australia are the only major developed countries that did not sign on. This year, then, marks the beginning of an important new round of negotiations about what set of emissions reductions will take effect once the Kyoto Protocol’s target period of 2008 to 2012 is over, according to Patt.

Most climate experts and many countries, including the European Union, agree that safely stabilizing the climate will require a much larger reduction in emissions, as much as 70 percent below current levels, over the next few decades. But many countries balk at the potential economic costs and lifestyle changes associated with such major emissions reductions.

Because the U.S. position is so unpopular with the rest of the world, its representatives at the conference were under pressure to defend its stance. In doing so, they came across “as a group of very well-prepared trial lawyers,” Patt says, compared to the Europeans, whose economy may have less at stake, and who “seem to negotiate on the basis of what’s good for the world rather than what’s good for their own particular country.”

The BU group attended as guests of the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), a London-based nonprofit accredited by the United Nations as one of hundreds of “observer” organizations. Patt has worked in the past with IIED in helping southern African countries adapt to climate change.