The Geopolitics of the Paris Talks

The Web of Alliances Behind the Climate Deal

A woman walks past a map showing the elevation of the sea in the last 22 years during the World Climate Change Conference 2015 (COP21) at Le Bourget, near Paris, France, December 11, 2015. Stephane Mahe / Reuters

World headlines blare the news that negotiators in Paris have reached a global climate change agreement. Yet underneath the soaring rhetoric were hard politics that can tell a lot about the longevity of the deal.

As the Paris climate negotiations moved toward their final days, delegates’ focus shifted from the technical to the political. The negotiating text had been stripped of its most baroque complications, and what was left reflected core differences among countries.

Navigating this phase of the talks requires an understanding of the shifting alliances among nearly 200 countries, dramatized through the fierce public battles over how to even characterize the talks in Paris. India and South Africa tried to solidify developing country alliances by accusing the United States of undermining the fundamental negotiating principle of equity. The United States and the European Union talked up the emergence of an informal “High Ambition Coalition” among countries spanning the traditional rich-poor divide.

By defining the narrative of the negotiations as a fight for either “climate equity” or “climate ambition,” countries hope to focus political and media pressure on those who, they claim, are blocking progress. This is tactically understandable but obscures what is really going on.

Climate change negotiations are too often described as a kind of environmental cold war between developed and developing countries. But this dynamic has not held for over a decade. The implications of climate change, and its solutions, are too central to countries’ core national interests for them to base their negotiating positions just on some abstract sense of “historic responsibility.” Countries’ interests are likewise too diverse for them to make permanent alliances simply on the basis of levels of per capita income. Oil producers, forested nations, high-tech trading centers, and low-lying or desert countries all have distinct interests to protect.

Environmentalists hold a banner which reads, "Crank up the Action" at a protest demonstration near the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France, December 12, 2015.
Environmentalists hold a banner which reads, "Crank up the Action" at a protest demonstration near the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France, December 12, 2015. Mal Langsdon / Reuters
A better analogy for Paris is major European powers’ alliance building and periodic conflicts in the late nineteenth century. All major powers had a shared interest in maintaining stability, but they struggled to reconcile their

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