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The multifaceted nature of global climate change negotiations

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International climate change negotiations primarily occur during annual Conferences of the Parties (COPs) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and currently involve virtually every country in the world. What effect does such a large and heterogeneous group of states have on the complexity of climate change negotiations? Would a smaller, more homogenous, assortment of countries produce a more efficient negotiation space? To begin to answer these questions, I apply Latent Dirichlet Allocation to a corpus of High-level climate change conference speeches, covering the formal statements made by country-representatives at the 16th-to-19th COPs. This exercise yields a very large and coherent set of latent topics and many, but not all, of these topics correspond to the negotiating positions presumed by extant research. Analysis of the resultant topics reveals that the dominant dimensions of climate change negotiation favor developing country concerns over cooperation, though reducing negotiations to a smaller core group of countries may lessen this disparity. Together these findings indicate that unsupervised topic models can substantially expand our understandings of climate change negotiations, and international cooperation more generally.

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  1. Annual UNFCCC COPs last approximately two weeks and encompass organizational matters, working groups and reports, adoptions of proposals, national communications, and High-level segments, among other agendas. While the majority of these tasks are performed by a country’s broader representatives to the UNFCCC, the High-level segment encompasses a shortened session during a COP’s two-week negotiating period at which time each country’s formal environmental minister or head-of-state travels to the COP host site to deliver a national statement, as well as to provide negotiation guidance more generally.

  2. See, e.g., Victor (2006, 2011), Stavins (2010) and Schüssler et al. (2014).

  3. See, e.g., McDonald (2009), Sasman (2010) and The Financial Express (2013).

  4. See, e.g., Soliz (2011), Widerberg and Stenson (2013) and Schunz (2009).

  5. As argued below, the unstructured and unprompted nature of UNFCCC High-level segment speeches—in contrast to other forms of UNFCCC participation such as national communications—allows me to identify these initial positions and concerns towards climate change cooperation. By ‘initial,’ I specifically mean the positions countries hold towards climate change prior to their being forced to tailor their opinions and demands to a more limited set of pre-defined, core climate change issue areas. I also refer to initial positions as ‘pre-agreement’ positions, and use ‘negotiation’ and ‘bargaining’ interchangeably, throughout the text.

  6. By ‘tangential,’ I mean any concerns or demands that countries bring to UNFCCC negotiations that fall outside of the core issue-areas of UNFCCC climate change cooperation (defined below).

  7. Available on the Review of International Organization’s webpage.

  8. Clubs are institutions or forums that (initially) involve only a small number of core states in the tasks of agenda setting, rule-making, and international cooperation (Keohane and Nye 2001). Their more limited size helps to facilitate international cooperation through an ease of monitoring and an increased ability of members to withhold benefits and thus deter free riding (Keohane and Victor 2011, 16).

  9. See, e.g., discussions of Kyoto’s slow ratification process and unfulfilled promises among key states (Buchner and Dall’Olio 2005; Crowley 2007), as well as assertions of Kyoto’s failures in gaining either U.S. ratification or binding commitments from developing states—especially China and India (Victor 2006, 91).

  10. Put another way, my claim is that the number of issue dimensions, unconditional on their distance or salience, is widely argued to be the overriding contributor to current climate change gridlock.

  11. I give examples of several asserted fundamental (“core”) and secondary issues further below. Note that secondary issues, while arguably non-fundamental to climate change cooperation, are still extremely important to this endeavor for reasons of issue linkage, leverage, and value differentiation (Sebenius 1983).

  12. Although it remains an untested assumption as to whether the (potentially) large issue number and high issue complexity of contemporary UNFCCC negotiations are the causes of gridlock. That is, complexity could instead be more of a symptom than a cause of contemporary levels of UNFCCC gridlock.

  13. Indeed, these are the four core components identified under the “Focus” section of the UNFCCC website Though some—such as Victor (2011)—have implied that even this set of issues may be too expansive for successful global climate change cooperation (especially adaptation).

  14. Such as broader land-use demands or the Taiwan concerns mentioned above.

  15. And undermines countries’ abilities to identify a common interest (Oye 1986, 19).

  16. s many do (e.g., Najam 2005; Parks and Timmons Roberts 2006).

  17. Moreover, to the extent that the above indices do capture political behavior, the focus is largely on yes/no questions of major treaty ratification and compliance.

  18. When their national languages correspond to Russian, Spanish, French, Arabic or English.

  19. These are generally heads-of-state, environment ministers, heads of similar ministries such as agriculture, forestry or natural resources, or ambassadors to a given COP host-country.

  20., various pages.

  21. The exception being democracy, which was negatively and significantly related to missigness, although its substantive effect was not inordinate in size. See the supplementary files for this analysis.

  22. The methods used for this task may miss some (extremely obscure or misspelled) proper nouns. Examinations of my topics’ top word-stems suggests that this did not significantly affect the analysis.

  23. I evaluate topics up to k=100 given the topic numbers identified and explored in past applications of unsupervised topic models to political texts (e.g., Quinn et al. 2010; Gerrish and Blei 2011; Rice 2012).

  24. For the entire corpus, conditional on topic assignments; referred to hereafter as simply “log-likelihoods.”

  25. I.e., adaptation, finance, mitigation, and technology.

  26. E.g., Bailer and Weiler (2014) identify six “crucial” UNFCCC negotiation issues, which they suggest can be summarized by two main factors relating to mitigation and reduction targets. Weiler (2012) identifies eight core policy issues, including two related to reduction targets, two related to adaptation, two related to mitigation, one related to market mechanisms (e.g., finance), and one related to measurement/reporting.

  27. Especially if one uses the UNFCCC’s own stated agenda ( and past scholarship (Depledge 2006; Victor 2011) as a point of reference.

  28. Which, in contrast to the more formal “Introduction,” category, appears to correspond to countries’ overview remarks concerning their specific climate change goals, and to more general attempts to signal a country’s willingness to participate in climate change cooperation.

  29. My speeches dedicated an average of 3% of their content to “Introductions.”

  30. Along with “GHG” topic discussed above, this topic appears to correspond to a number of the more technical topics identified by Genovese (2014), as well as to the measurement, reporting and verification topic identified by Weiler (2012). In these regards, note that the issue-areas identified in the studies mentioned above likely appear more technical than those identified here because the former studies focused specifically on policy, while the present paper is more generally focused on climate change negotiating positions.

  31. Genovese (2014) identifies a similar topic in her analysis of National Reports and decision level texts.

  32. Definitions of “top emitters” vary depending on how and when emissions are calculated. I rely primarily on the figures and countries outlined in Victor (2011) for consistency, and leave Russia out of this club because it was not explicitly mentioned among Victor’s suggested club members (though the other BRIC nations were) and he elsewhere seems to implicate Russia as a direct contributor to the problematic dimensionality of the current negotiations (Victor 2011, 2006, 91). I do include Russia within my larger club grouping.

  33. See Victor (2006, 95) and Victor (2011, 213).

  34. These are the additional UNFCCC member states listed in Figure 1.1 of Victor (2011, 10). Together these states should arguably be included within any club of ‘top ten carbon emitters’ provided that the EU is treated as a single entity—as it is in Figure 1.1.

  35. Exceptions include Boockmann and Thurner (2006), Stewart and Zhukov (2009) and Genovese (2014).


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Correspondence to Benjamin E. Bagozzi.

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Bagozzi, B.E. The multifaceted nature of global climate change negotiations. Rev Int Organ 10, 439–464 (2015).

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