Climate Negotiations as a Realistic Fiction

by |June 1, 2015
Students get down to business at the Make It Work simulated climate negotiations in Paris. Photo: Logan Brenner

Students get down to business at the Make It Work simulated climate negotiations in Paris. Photo: Logan Brenner

Logan Brenner, a PhD student at Columbia, is reporting from Paris on “Make It Work,” a student simulation of the upcoming United Nations Climate Conference in Paris.

By Logan Brenner

With croissants in hand, we navigated the Paris metro through jet-lagged eyes and as much high school-aged French I could recall before 8 a.m. The most surprising part of our public transportation experience was the courtesy. Unlike the NYC subway, the riders on the rapid transit system quickly and quietly stepped out of the train to allow passengers to disembark without having to be asked. It was a good omen for the day.

The entire simulation is held at Theatre des Amandiers in Nanterre, a suburb of Paris. I was glad I arrived at the theater with a few other Columbia students, which reduced the jitters associated with traveling in a foreign country. However, the alphabetized registration lines forced us to temporarily part ways as I listened to a hurried explanation in French of the benefits of buying our lunch tickets in bulk.

Sociologist Bruno Latour spoke to students at the Make it Work student simulation. Photo: Logan Brenner

Sociologist Bruno Latour spoke to students at the Make it Work student simulation. Photo: Logan Brenner

Shortly after settling into the theater, Bruno Latour, a French sociologist and science philosopher, shared his perspective on the ideal outcomes of the Make it Work student simulation for the upcoming UN Climate Conference of Parties (the conference will be held in December in Paris to draft a climate treaty that can help limit global temperature rise to 2°C by 2050.). He stressed the importance of allowing students to tackle some of our global community’s pressing issues. He suggested that students are often motivated by creative thought and not always bound by the political strategies that can leave negotiating parties finding themselves gridlocked.

Latour emphasized the need to create new boundaries for our delegations dictated by our needs to survive (e.g. water) rather than cartography. Make it Work will give a voice to the marginalized by including non-state delegations like Climate Refugees or The Oceans and entities such as my own, the Beni Haroun reservoir in Algeria, which were previously unrepresented. Latour urged us to develop what he called a “realistic fiction,” a plausible and realistic solution that exists in fictional space produced through the use of theater, art, and non-state delegations.

Following Latour’s speech, our first pre-negotiations workshops allowed us to brainstorm and prepare amendments to the negotiation text. The negotiation text is a series of articles outlining the collective vision of the international community’s response to climate change and the pathways to achieve said vision. The text will outline the framework necessary to support the interests of the contributing parties in order to limit global emissions and protect and prevent against the impacts of climate change, limiting temperature rise to 2°C by 2050.

To figure out how to get to this point we had to determine how each entity within a delegation is connected to one another. Make it Work designed custom pentagonal tables, a side for each entity, with a special covering that turned the top into a write-on white board. Multiple tables could fit together to create physical connections between the delegations mapping out negotiations. While an oddly shaped table may not seem like it should make a huge difference, having the physical space to envision our negotiating paths was crucial to organizing our thoughts.

Logan Brenner is acting as part of an Algerian delegation to climate talks.

Logan Brenner is acting as part of an Algerian delegation to climate talks.

The Beni Haroun reservoir is considered an endangered territory entity, because the impending decrease in precipitation owed to climate change threatens to dramatically decrease Algeria’s water supply. To convince my delegation that the needs of my entity should take priority, I underscored my proposals for the negotiation text with the simple fact that a stable and sufficient water supply is the backbone of any nation, and wars started over water may be in our near future.

I was easily in line with other entities in my delegation with a financial support arrow connecting me to the government, specifically from revenue from the energy industry, and improved water access and reduced water source pollution connecting me to the Arab Youth Movement.

During the brainstorming session, we were quickly approached by the Endangered Species non-state delegation. They were curious if we would be interested in reorganizing our national budget to put more of a focus on preserving our ecological biodiversity. Their interest in our conservation plans provided an excellent opportunity to start to develop an ally.

I acknowledged that if we expanded our reservoir’s infrastructure, we might redirect rivers and deprive ecosystems of their natural water source. While this is not ideal, we need to find and store more water for our human population. I told them that we would redistribute funds in our budget if they would help us secure new technology or external financial support from other nations to further our desalinization efforts (filtering the salt out of seawater to make it suitable for drinking) and treatment plants to provide water for irrigation to take pressure off of our potable supply. While we were only in a brainstorming workshop, it seemed that we might be able to forge a strong relationship during the negotiation phase.

Make it Work enlisted artists, actors and dancers in the Programme d’expérimentation en art et politique de Sciences Po to use stage work and meditative methods to improve channels of communication. Photo: Logan Brenner

Make it Work enlisted artists, actors and dancers in the Programme d’expérimentation en art et politique de Sciences Po to use stage work and meditative methods to improve channels of communication. Photo: Logan Brenner

In addition to what might be expected of a climate negotiations simulation, Make it Work enlisted the creative help of artists, actors and dancers in the Programme d’expérimentation en art et politique de Sciences Po. The goal of this collaboration was to use stage work and meditative methods to improve the channels of communication between all parties.

This approach reminded me of a recent Columbia University-hosted lecture by Alan Alda. He encouraged scientists to try improvisation games to learn to open up, work through nerves and stage fright, and find ways to continue the conversation during difficult times through the “yes, and…” method.  While there were no classic improvisation games, we did some other exercises to help us break through some boundaries, both mental and physical. Half of these stage work and “tuning” exercises involved touching and moving with other people to allow both the touched and the person touching to connect and forgo barriers that might be separating them. This would ideally transfer to opening the communication channels during negotiations. There was definitely no inappropriate touching, but I was a bit uncomfortable and stuck to working with my own delegation. I think that there were other options that could have allowed us to achieve that same closeness and promote more bonding without invading the personal space of students we had only just met.

I must cede however, that one exercise was particularly fun. Whether it was the giddiness associated with the closing of a long day or the excitement of trying something new, running with my eyes closed was liberating. With my partner as my guide (her eyes were open, of course) we jogged along the outside of the theater. At first it was overwhelmingly bizarre, but towards the end I realized that I could completely trust her, and we had a good time with the activity.

While I wasn’t a fan of every exercise, I definitely took away some new experiences with improved connections to my delegation members. I look forward to seeing how these relationships manifest in the negotiation phase.

Logan Brenner writes online at “Science of Logan.”

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