Climate Diplomacy: A Mismatch Between Science and Politics

A struggle between natural science and politics has characterized the history of climate diplomacy from 1991 to the present, as the physical condition of the earth’s atmosphere worsens while the international community continues to try to design policy responses. ... Progress in combating climate change needs more intense, blunt, and candid conversations on a sustained basis between atmospheric physicists and diplomatic negotiators to move forward at a time when global economic and population growth is increasing greenhouse gas emissions and exacerbating climate change.

Jack M. Schick is a 19-year veteran of the international climate change negotiations and former United States delegate to the UNFCCC. He is currently a non-resident associate member of Chatham House in London and a resident member of Diplomatic and Consular Officers Retired (DACOR) in Washington, DC.

The author wishes to thank Professor Michael McElroy, Harvard University; Jonathan Pershing, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and former Special Envoy for Climate Change, Department of State; and Daniel Reifsnyder, co-chair of climate negotiations subgroups and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, for their substantive comments and contributions to this article.

A struggle between natural science and politics has characterized the history of climate diplomacy from 1991 to the present, as the physical condition of the earth’s atmosphere worsens while the international community continues to try to design policy responses. The science, in this case the physics of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere, finds that human influence on the climate system—through combustion of fossil fuels for power generation and transportation, as well as deforestation—is unequivocally warming the earth at both the land surface and oceans. The October report of climate scientists published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has just reaffirmed this consensus.[1] Countries have channeled their efforts to address climate change through the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which comprises 194 nation states, but that instrument has moved at a glacial pace[2] and, as a Chatham House paper has noted, is “typified by maximalist positions, intransigence, and retrenchment.”[3] Progress in combating climate change needs more intense, blunt, and candid conversations on a sustained basis between atmospheric physicists and diplomatic negotiators to move forward at a time when global economic and population growth is increasing greenhouse gas emissions and exacerbating climate change.

Since climate change is a global issue, the United Nations, whose membership includes nearly all the world’s governments, seemed the logical forum in 1991 to start to address the issue. Unfortunately, with the UN’s membership came its political baggage, in particular, a hard and fast political distinction between developed and developing economies in the UN General Assembly (UNGA) and the belief that the former should finance the latter’s participation in climate diplomacy. This distinction, also called “differentiation” or “bifurcation,” has bedeviled negotiations since the beginning in 1991.[4] As recently as the UNFCCC negotiating session in Bangkok, Thailand, in September 2018, a caucus of developing countries, led by Egypt and including the Arab Gulf states, Iran, Pakistan, and Malaysia, revived the distinction as a way to minimize their obligations for implementing the 2015 Paris Agreement, which has no provision for the distinction.[5] Such countries have argued that developed countries have caused the climate problem through their industrialization, while the developing countries still need economic growth through industrialization to complete their development and require financial grants, loans, and subsidies to deal with climate change.

Most national delegates in climate diplomacy, many of them from the UNGA, have little knowledge of climate science and revert, in the classic style of the UNGA, to what they know best: viewing the UNFCCC, in the case of many developing countries, as a platform for demanding financial transfers from richer economies to poorer ones outside the normal aid channels of the World Bank and other development banks. For example, at the May 2018 session in Bonn, Germany, Egypt on behalf of the Group of 77 developing country caucus called for setting a quantified collective goal on finance for developed countries to contribute,[6] which developed country delegations unsurprisingly resisted. This tendency to treat climate diplomacy as a means of shopping financial demands has as much to do with the historic claims of some developing countries for compensation by former Western colonial powers and broader economic growth and development ambitions as with climate change as a physical phenomenon. However, their demands are, in effect, an end run around existing banks and lending agencies for developing countries.

The IPCC, the scientific advisory body to the UNFCCC, first assessed the atmosphere’s deterioration and the economic risks it poses in 1990. Throughout the 27 years since that assessment, the IPCC has struggled to persuade UNFCCC delegations to pay more attention to the climate issue at hand. The most recent IPCC finding in October 2018, as one of the authors put it, a clarion call from the science community,[7] graphically projects the economic damage climate change can wreak as early as 2030. Unfortunately, the climate talks have frequently lost sight of the IPCC’s findings, both in the original study and the four subsequent updates between 1990 and 2014, and have been bogged down in quarrels over the amount and timing of additional aid to developing countries.

It may be time, if not past time, to refocus the climate talks on climate science, which was the original driver of the negotiations 27 years ago. A needed pause is in order—a time out—to refresh the conversation between climate scientists and climate negotiators and to stimulate new energy and new vision for coming to grips with increasingly likely climate-related disasters. A face-to-face, well-recruited conference of the two professions—diplomatic and scientific—is in order to enhance climate negotiators’ understanding of the IPCC’s findings. In this case, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) in Geneva, Switzerland, could host the conclave, as it did the World Climate Conference in 1990.[8] The WMO’s annual reports on the state of the global climate make the WMO well positioned to lead a reassessment of the state of play in the global response to climate change.[9]

The World Climate Conference of 1990, sponsored by the WMO and the UN Environment Programme, is a useful precedent for holding another WMO conference because the original Conference was closely informed by the IPCC’s first assessment report earlier that year and issued a strong statement by climate scientists that highlighted the risks of climate change.[10] The first part of the Conference consisted of a series of scientific sessions attended by 747 scientists and technology experts from around the world and included a Consultation Group on Special Needs of Developing Countries.[11] In addition, the second part of the Conference issued a Ministerial Declaration after hard bargaining by heads of government and ministers that called for a framework treaty to contain commitments and innovative solutions.[12] By the next year, these calls had launched the negotiations that led to the establishment of the UNFCCC in 1992.

It would be important for the WMO to organize the proposed gathering without the developing countries being bound to their formal caucuses and the caucuses’ financial demands and allow them to participate as national delegations. It should be a meeting of professionals—diplomats and scientists—across the table from each other to hold those blunt, intense, and candid conversations that are needed at this juncture. The informal workshops that are now held in between formal negotiations of the UNFCCC and that tackle specific technical issues are similar to the proposed WMO conference, though the latter should be on a larger scale. It may not be necessary this time for heads of government and ministers to gather and extoll their environmental achievements, as they did in 1990 and as they do at the high-level segments of the UNFCCC’s annual conferences of the parties. A workmanlike setting for the benefit of climate scientists and climate negotiators devoid of high-blown rhetoric may be more productive.

Chances are that many diplomatic negotiators from both developed and developing countries would be amazed at the depth and breadth of knowledge the scientific community has acquired since the first IPCC assessment in 1990, which it has reaped from its sustained focus since that time. An effort should be made to include climate scientists from Brazil, China, India, and other developing country universities and laboratories to speak directly to their compatriots in the negotiating arena. Direct engagement would yield clarity about the urgency of policy responses to accelerating climate change given the evidence, as the IPCC’s October report notes, that icebergs are breaking off Antarctic ice shelves, the Greenland ice sheet is melting, the Arctic is warming at an unprecedented rate, and coral reefs are dying back from acidification caused by increasing amounts of carbon dioxide absorbed by the oceans.[13]

Scientists could speak specifically to the impact of extreme weather events on the economies of specific negotiators. Probably the most receptive would be the Pacific island states, such as the Marshall Islands, Palau, Samoa, and Tuvalu, which have experienced severe typhoons and rising sea levels from thermal expansion of the ocean. Developed economies would almost certainly be responsive to impacts on their navies’ coastal installations, on ports and harbors vital to world trade, on coastal property owners and beach tourism industries, and on coastal cities such as Houston, Miami, New York, Guangzhou, and Shanghai, which are subject to severe floods and are beginning to build physical barriers to floods and storm surges.

One practical payoff from such a visible, international re-start would be to shine a light on the state, city, foundation, and corporate actors that have already moved more quickly than the UNFCCC to address the potential and actual impacts of changing climatic conditions on their communities and businesses. The world’s largest corporations, including Apple, Google, and Microsoft, are contributing to emissions reductions with ambitious renewable energy targets.[14] Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has formed the “We Are Still In Coalition,” which includes 2,700 state, local, and business leaders, whose emissions reductions would reach 60 percent of the United States’ Paris pledge. Several state governors have formed the U.S. Climate Alliance, which includes 16 states joined by 240 cities, 1,905 business firms, and 345 colleges and universities.[15]

Another practical payoff would be to incentivize parties to reorganize their UNFCCC delegations to include climate scientists and economists in their ranks, as was the case in the earliest days of the climate talks. When climate diplomacy was in its infancy in 1991-1992, atmospheric physicists from government laboratories were members of the official delegations. The United States had scientists from NOAA and the UK from the Hadley Centre of the Meteorological Office.[16] The subject of human-influenced climate change was new as a fitting topic for multilateral diplomacy, and scientists on the delegations gave a boost to the negotiating process because they knew the most about the climate issue and its economic implications for the countries impacted.

Admittedly, a WMO conference would be unable to avoid the context in which the UNFCCC has had to operate: the divergence of energy, industrial, and forest interests and income inequalities of the parties. Coal-dependent Australia rejected the recommendations in the IPCC’s October report, which urged shutting down coal output by 2050.[17] Putative reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels and deforestation touch on formidable commercial interests like Australia’s. However, the UNFCCC can borrow from the uniquely effective Montreal Protocol for Protection of the Ozone Layer, to encourage national economies to stage and phase emissions reductions that take into account the commercial interests involved as the Protocol does. In addition, the Protocol itself can be used to reduce hydrofluorocarbon emissions as a potent non-carbon greenhouse gas.[18] The Protocol’s staging and phasing are supplemented by appropriate financing from the Multilateral Fund needed by the least-developed economies to cope with climate change, which is periodically replenished by the parties.[19] The UNFCCC has a similar financial mechanism comprising two instruments, the Global Environment Facility and Green Climate Fund, that will need to continue to be replenished.[20] Public and corporate financing for advances in energy efficient, renewable technologies, such as wind and solar power, are well-known and will continue to be critical to practical progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The Paris Agreement provides for “nationally-determined contributions” to global reductions of greenhouse gas emissions to be ramped up every five years,[21] and the timing of a WMO conference could be coordinated with the run-up to the initial “stock take” in 2023. Negotiators will be focused on that target date and preparing to address issues that may arise with having credible emissions reductions to show by that time. They may be in a mood—especially if they are still bogged down in disputes over differentiation and financing—to step back and reconsider the whole enterprise of climate diplomacy and re-engage the scientific community before trying to move toward the 2023 stock take.

Both the Bush and Obama Administrations found it necessary to step outside the inefficient UNFCCC process during 2007-2016, and to make headway in resolving sticky technical issues in a private setting originally called the Major Economies Meeting on Energy and Security (MEM) and later the Major Economies Forum (MEF) respectively.[22] About 20 major parties shed their UNFCCC caucuses’ agendas and offered their individual views, which were vetted in the MEM or MEF before the annual UNFCCC meetings. Outside the MEF and the UNFCCC, a bilateral understanding in 2014 between China and the United States to commit to emissions reductions probably was the most important single factor in bringing about the 2015 Paris Agreement.[23]

The ground would need to be well-prepared for a proposal for another WMO conference to gain traction. Perhaps the WMO could stage trial runs before 2023 or broach the concept at a side event at one of the conferences of the parties in the next five years. Side events have proven to be an important feature of these conferences, in which new ideas and proposals have often been floated and debated. The WMO, UNEP, the International Energy Agency, the International Emissions Trading Association, and many other NGOs have all used them to present their annual reports and findings. Perhaps the IPCC’s October report, even though it is a one-time statement, can serve as a catalyst for moving toward a sustained effort, to be launched by a WMO conference.



[1] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC Press Release, October 8, 2018,

[2] Statement by Australian Ambassador Patrick Suckling at a meeting of the International Emissions Trading Association, “An IETA Talanoa: Leadership Dialogues,” September 25, 2018.

[3] Rob Bailey and Shane Tomlinson, “Post-Paris: Taking Forward the Global Climate Change Deal,” Chatham House, April 2016.

[4] UNFCCC, Article 4.3, Article 4.7, Climate Change Secretariat, 1992.

[5] Earth Negotiations Bulletin, “Summary of the Bangkok Climate Change Conference,” September 9, 2018,

[6] Earth Negotiations Bulletin, “Summary of the Bonn Climate Change Conference,” May 13, 2018,; UNFCCC, Press Release, “Urgency Urged as Bonn Climate Talks Close,”

[7] Foreign Policy Morning Brief, “UN Releases Dire Climate Change Report,” October 8, 2018.

[8] Climate Change Fact Sheet, “The Second World Climate Conference,” November 8, 1990.

[9] World Meteorological Organization, “WMO Statement on State of the Global Climate,” 2017.

[10] Climate Change Fact Sheet.

[11] Ibid.

[12] IPCC Press Release.

[13] Joshua Busby, “Warming World: Why Climate Change Matters More Than Anything Else,” Foreign Affairs, July/August 2018, pp. 49-55.

[14] Rhodium Group, “Taking Stock 2018,” June 28, 2018,

[15] Michael Bloomberg and Carl Pope, Climate of Hope, How Cities, Businesses, and Citizens Can Save the Planet, St. Martin’s Press, 2017.

[16] Daniel Albritton, Director, Aeronomy Laboratory, NOAA, Briefing to President George H. W. Bush, April 1991.

[17] Financial Times, “Australia Bucks Warming Fears With Snub to the UN Over Coal Phase-out,” October 10, 2018.

[18] Mario Molina et al., “Reduced Abrupt Climate Risk Using the Montreal Protocol and Other Regulatory Actions to Complement Cuts in CO2 Emissions,” PNAS, December 8, 2009,

[19] Daniel Esty, “Beyond Kyoto: Learning from the Montreal Protocol,” Joseph Aldy and Robert Stavins, eds., Architectures for Agreement: Addressing Climate Change in the Post-Kyoto World, Cambridge University Press, 2007, p. 266.

[20] World Resources Institute, “A Key Week for the Future of the GEF as Countries Re-up Its Funding,” April 24, 2018,

[21] UNFCCC, “The Paris Agreement and Decision 1/CP 21”, of which it is formally an Annex, Article 4.

[22] U.S. Department of State, “Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate,” 2009,

[23] The White House, “Fact Sheet: US-China Cooperation on Climate Change,” 2016.

Jack M. Schick
Jack M. Schick

Jack M. Schick is a 19-year veteran of the international climate change negotiations and former United States delegate to the UNFCCC. He is currently a non-resident associate member of Chatham House in London and a resident member of Diplomatic and Consular Officers Retired (DACOR) in Washington, DC.