Understanding African Enfranchisement in Climate Negotiations
September 26, 2012
South African President Jacob Zuma pauses during a speech to mark the opening ceremony of the COP 17 climate conference in Durban, South Africa (AP Photo/Schalk van Zuydam).

Developing countries are often thought to be disenfranchised in global climate change negotiations. Most have little geopolitical power relative to industrialized states, which makes it difficult for them to get what they want. But often their negotiators also lack more basic things, like good information, adequate resources, institutional support and experience, which can be just as important for effective participation.

Without these assets, developing countries are even more likely to be sidelined in international forums. And many believe that the climate change negotiations are no exception. Indeed, this is a common picture of how things often are. But it is also somewhat misleading.

First of all, of course, certain developing countries can have a great deal of power in climate negotiations and protecting the global commons cannot be done without their cooperation. Since their emissions are increasingly significant, this gives them a degree of influence in the domain of climate change that they may not have in other issue areas. We can call this 'climate power.'
Second, the developing world now contains some formidable states in the traditional sense of power politics. Countries like China, India, and Brazil, as well as a range of smaller regional powers, are now playing a much more important role in global negotiations across the board. And the reason is that, in addition to climate power, they also have other major assets such as large economies, advanced militaries, and the diplomatic prestige that those carry.

Scholars studying the global climate change negotiations have just begun to recognize how powerful parts of the developing world have become, though the extent and significance of this change is much disputed. The rise of the BASIC group (Brazil, South Africa, India and China), for example, is widely regarded as one of the most important developments in the climate regime. The crucial role that it played at Copenhagen is only the most dramatic example of how things seem to be shifting.

Since developing countries' emissions are increasingly significant, this gives them a degree of influence in the domain of climate change that they may not have in other issue areas. We can call this 'climate power.'

But other states within the developing world, such as those in the African Group and the Least Developed Countries (LDC) Group, have been gaining strength as well, and it is not because they are becoming larger emitters. Nor is it because they have large militaries, big economies or diplomatic prestige. Rather, their rise is a story about changes in their abilities to negotiate effectively. With better information, more resources, improved training and negotiating tactics, as well as greater experience, they are becoming better at playing the game.

Unfortunately, these sources of power and enfranchisement have often been overlooked in recent accounts of North-South dynamics in the climate regime. That is not to say that scholars are ignorant of them. But, in many studies, the growing influence of such countries seems to be something of an anomaly. The reason is that scholars frequently seem to assume that their negotiating capacity has been consistently low, or even declining. They recognize that changes in the geopolitical power of certain big developing states have occurred, but they neglect the fact that the capacities of others have improved as well.

This needs to change. In order to better understand the influence of individual developing states and multi-country coalitions on outcomes in the climate negotiations, we need to look beyond the traditional sources of power that scholars have tended to focus on. We also need to go beyond the assumption that the rest of the developing world consistently has little ability to negotiate effectively.

Of course, their abilities may be lower, on average, but they are not constant. Rather, they are a variable that can help to explain what we see and which needs explaining. Under certain conditions, developing states have improved their ability to bargain effectively, and changed the dynamics of global negotiations.

In my own work on African participation in the climate negotiations, I’ve found this to be a critical dimension of the story, requiring careful analysis and operationalization. And it is one that, I believe, others need to consider as well. Though these facets of negotiating power may seem prosaic, they may be just as important for scholars to understand as the growing geopolitical clout of large emerging economies.

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