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Great expectations: Understanding why the UN climate talks seem to fail

Year after year, the UN climate negotiations end in disappointment, failing to produce a solution to global climate change. This briefing paper argues that setting such high expectations is wrongheaded and can potentially be damaging.

Harro van Asselt / Published on 18 June 2012

Vihma, A., and H. van Asselt (2012). Great expectations: Understanding why the UN climate talks seem to fail. Finnish Institute of International Affairs Briefing Paper 109 (2012).

In the aftermath of UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) conferences, it is common to hear complaints about how little was accomplished. Some call for a reform of the UN model of multilateral negotiations; others argue for abandoning the talks altogether or moving the negotiations elsewhere.

This paper argues that the expectations placed on the UN climate regime are simply too high, and the resulting disappointments are damaging, as they resonate with skeptics of international climate policy and UN multilateralism in general.

The world has changed since the early 1990s, when post-Cold War optimism provided fertile ground for establishing several environmental regimes. The new geopolitical and domestic realities provide the backdrop for the progress that can be achieved through multilateral climate negotiations.

However, the UN climate regime plays a crucial role by catalysing climate action, building a common vision between different states, enhancing transparency, and promoting the diffusion of novel policy ideas and instruments. The role of the UNFCCC could be further strengthened by allowing it to act as an orchestrator which coordinates the array of initiatives.

Download the paper (external link to Finnish Institute of International Affairs)

SEI author

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Harro van Asselt

SEI Affiliated Researcher


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