On consensus and compromise
This is hard enough at a smaller scale. How could it work at a global one?
I’ve been intrigued by the accounts of a friend (and old flatmate) who’s at the COP19 talks in Warsaw. She makes a plethora of insightful observations, most of which this post is not about, but a theme of the conference—even more so in general accounts than hers—has been a lack of progress towards any sort of agreement.
The phenomenon isn’t new to Warsaw, of course. Copenhagen 2009 is widely remembered for its failure to produce an agreement, or in the eyes of many, any meaningful progress. The conventional wisdom is that everyone talks a lot about urgency, but no-one acts on it.
I’ve always found the idea that 198 countries could gather in a room and reach unanimous agreement fanciful. This isn’t unique to climate change talks. I wrote about last year’s UN telecommunications conference, which failed similarly. I don’t really keep up with international politics much, but I sort of get the feeling this generally runs through most attempts to thrash out a global consensus.
The thing is, most of the time, we have a hard enough time coming to a consensus domestically. I could point to the recent U.S. government shutdown, which is analogous not just for its lack of timely compromise, but also because everyone talked about the need to avert a greater calamity. But that’s an extreme example. It’s actually more difficult to think of counterexamples than it is to think of supporting examples. Extraordinarily few votes in national legislatures in most countries (or at least most democratic countries) are unanimous. Very few are even near-unanimous. Most votes dealing with major issues split relatively evenly, as in, between one- and two-thirds.
So what hope is there of achieving consensus among the entire world?
I could write for ages about potential solutions. Pretty much no country demands such agreement in its domestic political process, of course, but there are lots of reasons why that won’t work at an international level. Perhaps a game-theoretic approach would help the stalemate. Truthfully, I don’t really know what the answer is, so I’ll just avoid rambling aimlessly.