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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.

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2 Comments Post a comment
  1. One thing I’ve heard a lot this week is that voting is actually better for consensus-building than a consensus system is. In consensus, all the emphasis and attention is on the parties that want to block – making it more unlikely for them to budge. It’s not good for trust either, because if everyone is agreed apart from one or two parties who block, everyone reallly hates those couple of parties. The youth constituency here works on the same consensus system and comes across these issues too.

    As for the possibility of introducing voting in the unfccc, there are some existing draft rules that have never been adopts. However, this would have to happen by consensus ….

    The other way to do it would be to amend the convention – PNG and Mexico actually introduced a proposal earlier this COP to do just that – but the problem is that this would require ratification, and since not all states would ratify this would essentially lead to dual systems and a legal nightmare.

    By the way, it’s 12 pm on Saturday and the deadlock is still going strong… I really do think the actual decision making mechanism used here is negotiation by exhaustion – parties who fall asleep or leave automatically lose.

    23 November 2013
  2. speters855 #

    Trying to get unanimous agreement is counterproductive, IMV. The important consensus is the one where parties agree to come together and form a ‘body’ (such as a parliament) – and then each is free to disagree, and offer their reasons. In this way, even though they dont get their way, they are included, and if they keep working at the attractiveness and quality of their arguments, may one day get their way. But to do so, they must continue to accept the groundrules the parties operate under to form the body. Ideally, this should operate under a one person, one vote, equal value scenario. While this is possible at the national level, I cannot see how it would work at the international level (although the UNGA is such a ‘body’, but is ruled in matters of geo-politics by the security council).

    24 November 2013

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