The Patient is Alive: A Turning Point for Multilateralism at Cancun?

By J. Timmons Roberts

6:23 am, the surgery is shut down, the patient, multilateralism, once given up for dead, is alive and showing signs of what might be a remarkable recovery.

A year ago in Copenhagen, nearly all faith in the United Nations system to address climate change was gone.  Secret drafts of agreements by the Danish president were leaked out, and the final Copenhagen Accord was penned by an exclusive group of just five nations, who forced the other 186 nations to simply sign on to their deal.


In fact the U.S. and China were the ones shaping the pact, and they had no interest in aggressive action commensurate with what the science suggested was needed.  Trust in the international system was shattered.

Sketchy news reports through this year were confirmed and fleshed out by last week’s Wikileaks documents, which revealed how the U.S. spent the year twisting the arms of hesitant nations to accept the extremely weak Copenhagen Accord, often threatening to cut off aid for the non-compliant.

Multilateralism seemed on its deathbed.  If the U.N. system was unable to lead the world’s nations to cooperate on this complex issue in a transparent and inclusive manner, it seemed a useless forum that had outlived its time.  Yet no other organization was in a position to lead us to a cooperative solution, even as global temperatures rise and climate disasters mount.

Then late in the Cancun meetings last week, a miracle cure seems to have appeared, delivered by capable clinicians: two Latin American women, Christiana Figueres of Costa Rica, and especially Patricia Espinosa, Foreign Secretary of host nation Mexico.

Somehow, beyond all odds, suddenly multilateralism is alive, resuscitated in the giant Ceiba hall of Cancun’s Moon Palace.  In the final sessions on Friday and through the night until Saturday at dawn, the tone was like nothing I’d seen in years observing these talks: nation after nation took the floor to congratulate Espinosa and her team in running an inclusive and transparent process through the entire process, in rebuilding trust, and in creating a balanced document that gave no one everything they wanted, but gave them at least some of what they needed.

We learned that there were three ingredients of the triple therapy the patient required to survive: transparency, inclusion, and balance.

One after another, tough customers like Brazil, the U.S., China, and India took the floor to say that while not perfect, the Cancun Agreement was balanced and a step in the right direction.   After hinting there were goddesses in the room, India’s delegate said “What you have accomplished today has given us the confidence to move forward.”  Smaller and poorer countries in the Africa group, the Least Developed Countries group, and small island states all endorsed the compromise texts, as did all Latin American countries save Bolivia.

This is a huge accomplishment for a process that just a day before had been called the walking dead, a “zombie” process refusing to go away.

So now the hard work of rehabilitation begins, on the road to next year’s meeting in Durban, South Africa.  The text will be scrutinized, and hard issues will have to be resolved to strengthen the agreement to get closer to an adequate effort on reduction of greenhouse gases and helping poor nations adapt to rising seas, droughts and more extreme weather.

But make no mistake about how important Cancun was for a multilateral solution to climate change: after hitting rock bottom, the patient has survived a near-death experience, and things are finally starting to look up.


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