Moving Deckchairs around the Titanic? Further Insights on the World’s Failing Climate Regime

By Elke Schüßler, Freie Universität Berlin.

David Levy’s bleak analysis of the carbon market is complemented by recent research by Charles-Clemens Rüling, Bettina Wittneben and myself regarding climate conferences as the sites of transnational climate policy making. While climate skepticism has long accompanied climate science and the debate about anthropogenic climate change, fresh skepticism about the structure and outcomes of climate policy processes is growing among those serious about saving our climate. The Kyoto Protocol, the much quoted “only game in town” in transnational climate policy, has failed to commit large industrialized countries and major carbon emitters such as the U.S. (in its first commitment period) and Canada (in its second) to binding targets for emissions reduction; the EU Emissions Trading Scheme, a cornerstone of supposedly ambitious European climate policy, has been written off by many civil society groups as well as by the European Parliament, voting against its reform in April; controversial energy production practices such as large-scale hydro-fracking are slowly but surely becoming more accepted even in countries such as Germany, a stronghold of the green movement. Meanwhile, the detrimental effects of climate change are being felt in both developed and developing countries, exemplified by the recent flood catastrophes in Europe and India. As climate policy is crumbling away, evidence grows to show that global warming and its threat to life on our planet is fact not fiction. Why have the decades of transnational policy efforts not produced better results?

In what he called the “Giddens’ Paradox”, Anthony Giddens argued that the problem climate policy needs to solve is unusually complex, requiring a significant change in behavior today to combat a threat that lies – largely – still in the future. This situation deters policy makers from addressing global warming during their government. Based on his own experience of being witch-hunted by climate skeptics in the U.S., Andy Hoffman has suggested that worldviews, values, and ideologies have turned any departure from the high-carbon path into a “culture war” with highly uncertain outcomes. Not least because of these intricacies, carbon markets have been embraced by policy makers as a “realpolitical” option to which businesses, civil society, and nation-states around the world could subscribe in moving towards a low-carbon economy.

In his recent blog piece, David Levy concludes that carbon markets have failed because financial institutions have succeeded in shaping them in line with their business models as “complex, opaque, volatile, and hard to value”. As a result they cannot send clear price signals that could effectively regulate carbon emissions. Matthew Patterson, a matter-of-fact supporter of what he has dubbed “climate capitalism”, commented that not the instrument itself should be criticized, but the lack of political ambition to regulate it properly.

Our own research on the transnational climate policy process in which these market solutions have been developed sheds further light explaining its sluggish pace and poor outcomes. Specifically, we analyzed changing micro-dynamics at the annual meetings of the “Conferences of Parties” (COPs) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and unravel three interrelated mechanisms that have led to a state of deadlock in the climate negotiations, particularly following the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol in 2005.

First, the Kyoto Protocol Instruments, particularly the “Clean Development Mechanism” (CDM) of certifying emission reduction units to be traded in emissions trading schemes attracted many new actors from finance, consulting, technology, and development organizations into the climate policy field. They all hoped to benefit financially from the new regime. Organizations from the development, anti-globalization and gender movements, trade unions, faith-based organizations, or research institutes from different academic disciplines also aimed to make use of growing public awareness of climate change issues. The average number of Observer organizations at the COPs more than doubled after 2005, and they have been pursuing issues largely unrelated to climate change mitigation.

Second, negotiations about the concrete instruments of the carbon markets became very technical and complex. The average number of government delegates doubled after 2005 because ever more experts with specialized knowledge were needed for each country’s Party delegation. This specialization increased the need for internal coordination and reduced the time that negotiators had for interaction with Observers, so that negotiations became increasingly detached from those actually affected by climate change. The growing complexity of negotiation items also divided the technical negotiators from the high-level political segment taking decisions in the second week of the COPs, as the latter could no longer fully comprehend the draft negotiation texts.

Third, the U.S., initially the main promoter of the Kyoto Protocol and its associated market mechanisms, never actually ratified it. This has created deep discord between the EU and the U.S. and also split the negotiations into two tracks, one dedicated to the Convention itself (including all Parties), and another dedicated to the implementation of the Kyoto Protocol (CMP; including only the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol). Meanwhile, the U.S. under George W. Bush also began setting up several alternative bilateral and multilateral climate-related negotiation forums.

These three developments – the growing number and range of actors, the creation of highly technical policy instruments for the Kyoto Protocol, and an increase in the number and type of negotiation tracks and forums – led to a situation in which, in the words of one of our interview partners, “there are more and more parallel processes” and “only very few people understand the whole thing”. Thus, the creation of carbon markets not only served the interests of strong business lobbyists as argued by David Levy, it also prevented advances in transnational climate negotiations because of a set of path-dependent dynamics that moved field constituents and issues away from the key aim of the policy endeavor at first, which was to mitigate human-made climate change in industrialized countries.

As a way out of this situation, David G. Victor suggested that a process similar to the one used by the World Trade Organization, not aiming for universal membership and legally binding agreements but starting from concrete agreements among the few largest carbon emitters and moving “bottom-up” would lead to more effective climate policies. Based on our analysis, and in terms of institutional theory, drawing boundaries around field members and issues is clearly necessary to (re-)introduce momentum in the transnational climate policy process. Whether or not such momentum will be any more than moving deckchairs around the Titanic, we cannot know. But for the sake of our planet, we must try.


Allen, Myles R., Mitchell, John F.B., Stott, Peter A. 2013. “Test of a decadal climate forecast” Nature Geoscience 6, 243-244.

Giddens, Anthony. 2011: The Politics of Climate Change. 2nd edition. Cambridge: Polity.

Guardian: “Thousands evacuated as Elbe bursts dam in German floods” (June 9 2013).

Hoffman, Andrew J. 2012. “Climate Science as Culture War”. Stanford Social Innovation (Fall 2012).

Khullar, Mridu: “India’s Floods Reveal Climate Change Specter”. (Oct 11 2009)

Levy, David L.: “Carbon Fiddles While the Planet Burns” OSC blog article from May 16 2013.

Levy, David L. “The Promise of Carbon Capitalism?” Review of Climate Capitalism: Global Warming and the Transformation of the Global Economy  by Newell, P. & Paterson, M. (Cambridge University Press, 2010). (February 2 2011).

Newell, Peter & Paterson, Matthew 2010. Climate Capitalism. Global Warming and the Transformation of the Global Economy. Cambridge University Press.

Nicola, Stefan & Andresen, Tino: „Germany Agrees on Regulation to Allow Fracking for Shale Gas“. (Feb 26 2013).

Schüßler, E., Rüling, C.-C., Wittneben, B. 2013. On melting summits: The limitations of field-configuring events as catalysts of change in transnational climate policy. Academy of Management Journal, in print. Interview with Felix Matthes: “Failed Emissions Trading Reform: ‘The End of a European Climate Policy’”

Time to scrap the ETS declaration campaign

Victor, David G. 2011. Global Warming Gridlock: Creating More Effective Strategies for Protecting the Planet. Cambridge University Press.

World Bank: “Warmer World Will Keep Millions of People Trapped in Poverty, Says New Report”. (June 19 2013).


5 thoughts on “Moving Deckchairs around the Titanic? Further Insights on the World’s Failing Climate Regime

  1. Pingback: Blogging Highlights: Melting Ice and Arctic Activism | Organizations and Social Change

  2. Dear Wolfgang,

    Thank you very much for your thoughtful comments on our paper. For us, the broader theoretical issue in the paper was to understand the conditions under which events such as the UNFCCC Conferences of the Parties (COPs) produce institutional change. Our research looks at the evolution of the COPs’ organizational characteristics from 1995 to 2012, and the findings are based on a very careful analysis of data including detailed attendance and event statistics (including side events, press briefings, etc.), interviews (during and after the cimate summits) with COP participants (both negotiators and observers), content analysis of daily and summary issues of the Earth Negotiation Bulletins, and of more than 50 academic reports on specific COPs and on the evolution of the UNFCCC as a whole.

    As Elke has already highlighted, our research is clearly positioned in relation the recent debate within organization theory on field-configuring events. It builds on earlier analyses of the role of discursive spaces provided by such events in producing convergence among actors within a heterogeneous and contested organizational field. We argue that the COPs led to an increase in interactions and information exchange and supported the development of a mutual awareness among field members in early stages in the climate policy field. These initial field structuring dynamics were the basis for a convergence towards a new understanding of climate change as a transnational commons problem and market mechanisms as adequate solutions. In this early phase, the COPs acted as afield-configuring events in the way this concept has been introduced in organization theory (for example by Lampel and Meyer, 2008). Following the entry into force of the Kyoto Protocol in 2005, however, our analyses show that the overall number and diversity of participating observer organizations increased drastically, patterns of domination changed, and the events’ central discursive spaces split into multiple parallel tracks. We also found that as a result of these changes, exchanges increasingly took place within country and constituency groupings rather than in unexpected constellations across different categories of field members. With this main mechanism of field-configuring events disabled, the UNFCCC process failed to catalyze a new, legally binding treaty by 2009 as it had aimed to. Following your suggestion to assess the effectiveness of the UNFCCC-related and parallel climate policies on global, national, and local levels would have been beyond the scope of our paper, even though we naturally see it as an important issue for future policy analysis.

    Our paper does not want to suggest that solving the climate problem would have been easy if only a different approach had been chosen. There is already a vast array of political explanations of why climate change policy targets have not been. Our contribution is to propose an explanation based on recent work in organization theory that has researched the role of UN conferences in addressing global regulatory issues (cf. the study by Hardy & Maguire, 2010, on the Stockholm Convention).

    We would like to thank you again for this debate and your careful reading, which has provided us with an opportunity to clarify our position.


    Hardy, C., & Maguire, S. 2010. Discourse, field-configuring events, and change in organizations and institutional fields: Narratives of DDT and the Stockholm Convention. Academy of Management Journal, 53: 1365-1392.

    Lampel, J., & Meyer, A. D. 2008. Guest editors’ introduction: Field-configuring events as structuring mechanisms: How conferences, ceremonies, and trade shows constitute new technologies, industries, and markets. Journal of Management Studies, 45: 1025-1035.

  3. I’m not necessarily a big fan of carbon markets, but I think this article is a bit too quick in laying the blame for the failure of climate policy at the feet of the carbon market.

    First, it asserts that the carbon market instruments lead to a growing number of actors getting involved. But it also says that “Organizations from the development, anti-globalization and gender movements, trade unions, faith-based organizations, or research institutes from different academic disciplines also aimed to make use of growing public awareness of climate change issues.” So what are the percentages of the new actors who got involved because of the carbon market and those who got involved because of other issues? Personally, I’d say the main reason for the increased involvement was that history seemed to be in the making and everybody wanted to be there to see and try to influence it. Which is I think borne out by the fact that COP attendance has markedly gone down again after the hoped-for treaty didn’t materialise.

    Second, the article asserts that, “negotiations about the concrete instruments of the carbon markets became very technical and complex. The average number of government delegates doubled after 2005 because ever more experts with specialized knowledge were needed for each country’s Party delegation… The growing complexity of negotiation items also divided the technical negotiators from the high-level political segment“ I would note that Montreal launched two new high-level processes, the AWG-KP and the “Dialogue”, which in Bali transformed into the AWG-LCA. So again, which percentage of the additional negotiators was there because of the carbon market issues and which percentage because of other issues? And which share of negotiation time do the carbon market issues actually account for? There’s maybe half a dozen agenda items on carbon market issues but several dozen on other issues.

    And connecting the US refusal to ratify Kyoto to carbon market issues, as this article seems to do, seems particularly far-fetched to me. And besides, even if the US had ratified Kyoto, the post-2012 negotiations would still have needed two tracks because non-Annex I countries have no commitments under Kyoto.

    The US refusal to ratify Kyoto is also not what caused there being a CMP next to the COP. There is a CMP because Kyoto is a separate treaty and every treaty needs its own decisin-making structure. Kyoto created new commitments and other issues that do no exist in the Convention, so these issues are of course treated under the Kyoto heading and not under the Convention heading. If we get a new treaty in 2015, that treaty will also have its own Conference of Parties, even if it has universal membership.

    Yes, “there are more and more parallel processes”, but again, the vast majority of those don’t deal with carbon markets. They deal with emission commitments, emission inventories, finance, technology cooperation, adaptation etc. etc. So saying that it was the creation of carbon markets “that moved field constituents and issues away from the key aim of the policy endeavour” seems pretty far-fetched to me.

    Finally, I would note that the smaller settings Victor and others call for already exist. They are called G-20 and Major Economies Forum and have been discussing climate change for years. And haven’t made any more progress than the UNFCCC. The main problem isn’t the universality of the UNFCCC, the main problem is that exactly the major emitters are not able to agree who should shoulder which part of the global effort.

    • Thank you, Wolfang, for your in-depth reply to our research and for sharing your thoughts with us. You may find it interesting to look at the full paper of our study (the link is given above; it is also available on in case you cannot access it), in which we ouline the dynamics sketched out here in more detail. To be clear, our analysis is conducted from an organization theory perspective, i.e. we have studied the COPs as organizations and have tracked changes in they way these organizations have been structured and how they have functioned over time. Our analysis has revealed a marked shift in the dynamics taking place at the COPs following the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol in 2005. This does not mean that we lay the blame specifically on carbon markets. As we outline also in our blog entry, the rise in participant numbers and issues post-2005 is not only due to those actors wanting to profit from the regime, but also by those aiming “to make use of „growing public awareness of climate change issues“.
      In the time before 2005, the US decision to denounce the Kyoto Protocol has clearly slowed down the ratification process, and we have strong evidence to show that negotiators laid an emphasis on developing Kyoto mechanisms and instruments once the Protocol had been adopted rather than on addressing more fundamental (and conflict-laden) questions such as those about the future of the policy regime. With the handling of the Kyoto Protocol as “the only game in town” on the one hand, and the ballooning of issues and interests pursued at the COPs on the other, the development of effective regulatory solutions through the COPs has become increasingly difficult.
      From an organizational theory perspective, this diversity of the issues pursued at the COPs and the increasing complexity of negotiations has reduced the possibilities for diverse actors to interact across subgroups, which is one important aspect for why such conferences are believed to trigger institutional changes in the first place. Indeed, this complexity may also have risen as a result of other regulatory solutions, as you suggest. As we see it, this would probably have come to the same end, i.e. the loss of any real likelihood that the COPs can bring about ambitous new global treaties and regulatory solutions. Thus, as organization theorists we conclude that a policy process carried forward by large world conferences continuing over a long period of time may fulfil many functions important for global policy processes – capacity building, raising issue awareness, networking, learning opportunities for local-level policy makers, etc. – but is unlikely to trigger effective regulatory solutions in the medium and long run.
      An interesting question that we have not addressed is whether the existence of the UNFCCC process with its mandate to bring about a universal regulation may actually hamper serious efforts in those smaller forums such as the G20 to draft credible committments among the largest carbon emitting countries. As you say, these forums have existed for a long time, but to no real effect. Unfortunately in this regard, our analysis – like most – is stronger in highlighting the problems of current policy approaches than in offering solutions.

      • Thanks for the detailed response, Elke. I’ve read through the version on but it I have to say it hasn’t swayed my opinion much. E.g. on the increase in COP attendance, the part about civil society actors is not clearly distinguished but tacked on to part about the carbon market actors, which to me makes it look as if it was all the same dynamic.

        In addition, the language about civil society actors wanting “to make use of the growing awareness” is rather skewed in my view, suggesting that they wanted to use the climate negotiations for achieving objectives that were not related to climate change. I would rather say that more and more actors became aware of the relevance of climate change for their own work. For instance, development organisations hardly featured in climate policy up to the middle of the last decade, but then became increasingly aware that climate change threatens to literally wash away all development gains and that development policy and climate policy hence have to be aligned.

        I thus don’t find the conclusions like “more and more actors find COP participation useful for their purposes, but their activity is increasingly disconnected from the issue of mitigating climate change” really robust. To draw such a conclusion, one would need to analyse in detail what the COP participants actually do, which the article does not do. One would also need to first define what exactly is deemed to be connected to mitigating climate change and what is not. Carbon market people probably view their activities as very much related to reducing emissions. And I would also note that the UNFCCC’s mandate is not only about mitigation but also about adaptation.

        The finding that there was a decrease of interaction between Parties and observers at side events also does not appear robust to me. The article bases this conclusion on the observation that the share of events organised by governments decreased. But in my view the relevant figure here is not the relative share but the absolute number of events organised by governments, the latter of which is not given in the article. As the total number of events has strongly increased, it’s no surprise that the share of governments has gone down. But the absolute number of government events may still be the same, which would indicate a similar level of interaction as previously. In addition, negotiators often participate in observer-organised side events, either on the panels or as part of the audience. Statements like, “Observers then began to concentrate on networking, resource acquisition, and capacity building for their own projects and agendas instead of engaging in a dialogue with the Parties.” are thus in my view blanket assertions based on insufficient evidence.

        The article in my view also provides little evidence that there is less interaction at high-stakes COPs.

        I would also note that “More intense and regular negotiation activities to produce draft texts for the COPs” was not a novelty that only started in the post-2005 process. The Kyoto Protocol was also negotiated in a dedicated negotiation track, the Ad Hoc Group on the Berlin Mandate. Which had no less than eight sessions between August 1995 and November 1997. The Kyoto negotiations were also an issue in the G7 and other meetings of the time. Similarly, the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee that negotiated the UNFCCC had five sessions between February 1991 and May 1992 and six further meetings between Rio and February 2005 to prepare COP 1. Thus, “Increasing frequency of inter-COP meetings dealing with technically complex negotiation issues” is not something that really distinguishes “Phase 2” from “Phase 1”. A high frequency of meetings characterised the period of 1991-97 arguably as much as post-2005. Negotiating a treaty simply happens to require a lot of work.

        I also don’t see where exactly there is the “strong evidence to show that negotiators laid an emphasis on developing Kyoto mechanisms and instruments once the Protocol had been adopted rather than on addressing more fundamental (and conflict-laden) questions such as those about the future of the policy regime.” I don’t see the evidence it in the article and I don’t see it in what I witnessed myself. All those additional inter-COP meetings weren’t about carbon markets, they were meetings of the two AWGs trying to hammer out the post-2012 framework, dealing exactly with those fundamental questions, designing a completely new mitigation architecture to accomodate the US and developing countries, as well as completely new architectures for adaptation, finance, technology, capacity-building, REDD+ etc. All of which were highly contentious.

        Whereas Kyoto mechanism issues have always only been negotiated at the SBs and the CMPs. Two times per year, not four to six times per year as the post-2012 negotiations in the AWGs. So I’m afraid I really can’t follow the conclusion that the fundamental issues about the future climate regime were pushed aside by carbon market issues.

        As for “decreasing effectiveness regarding UNFCCC’s aims”, I think such a conclusion would first of all require a definition of what is meant by “effectiveness” and how it is supposed to be measured. The article argues that the Kyoto Protocol didn’t really provide a solution either, so has the regime really become “less” effective or did it just stay as ineffective as it had already been? And while Copenhagen did not bring the hoped-for treaty, there’s people who argue that it nevertheless marked quite an advance. While Kyoto only regulated industrialised countries, we now have pledges from all major emitters, and while these are far from ambitious enough, so were the Kyoto commitments. And while the Copenhagen pledges are not binding, bindingness is a rather relative concept in international law anyway, as exemplified by Canada’s walking away from its Kyoto commitments. In addition, the Copenhagen process injected a significant momentum into national discussions in many countries, and this momentum has been carried forward. In many countries climate policy is now at a completely different level from what it was five years ago. So if effectiveness is measured by emissions reduced compared to BAU, Copenhagen has arguably been vastly more effective than Kyoto.

        More generally, I anyway wonder whether the expectation that international negotiations are supposed to deliver the solution to the climate problem isn’t rather misplaced. As US Americans like to say, all politics is local. International politics is only a function of domestic politics, so international negotiations can rarely take decisions that have not previously been prepared nationally. Countries aren’t going to commit to things internationally which they aren’t prepared to actually deliver domestically. And in most key countries the domestic situation is that there is as yet no appetite to undergo the fundamental economic transformation that is necessary, due to the blocking power of incumbent industries that benefit from the status quo. Incidentally (or not), countries’ positions on climate change align rather neatly with the amounts of fossil fuel reserves they have on their territories.

        Hence, in my view, progress in the international climate negotiations, no matter how they are configured, will only be possible if first the political balance of power shifts within key countries. Which fits with your discussion that field reconfiguration has to be preceded by disruption of existing strictures within the field itself or beyond. The best the international process can do in my view is to serve as catalyst for the national discussions and then lock in their results. As the Bali process did.

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