Healthy Planet

The Warsaw Discourses

Gregg Walker is making his way toward the University of Warsaw where the Global Landscapes Forum is being held as part of the United Nations climate change negotiations for 2013. The Oregon State University professor has been attending these international climate conferences for half a decade.

Oregon State Professor Gregg Walker checks in at the Global Landscapes Forum at the University of Warsaw as part of his research at the UN climate change talks in November 2013.
Oregon State Professor Gregg Walker checks in at the Global Landscapes Forum at the University of Warsaw as part of his research at the UN climate change talks in November 2013. (Photo: Tomasz Sobecki)

By Lee Anna Sherman

WARSAW, Poland — “This is like a climate change city,” says Gregg Walker as he hurries along a crowded corridor, dodging men in suits and ties, sidestepping women in bright scarves, wool leggings and leather boots. Tote bags are slung over shoulders. Cell phones are clapped to ears. Etched upon their collective faces are the ancestral roots of an entire globe.

Walker rushes through the computer center, where a couple hundred people work at laptops locked to long tables. IT experts hover, ready to troubleshoot. Medical staffers hustle past in orange jumpsuits. Volunteers mill about in green quilted vests, speaking into walkie-talkies. Even indoors, emissaries from tropical latitudes button their overcoats against Eastern Europe’s November chill, their mufflers snugged against skin accustomed to Pacific island breezes or equatorial heat.

He strides quickly down another long hallway, where earnest-looking 20- and 30-somethings recline in beanbag chairs as they scrutinize huge paper maps of the venue or check their iPhone apps for meeting updates. Imprinted on the cherry-red beanbags is the message, “This rest station provided by the United Arab Emirates.” He passes through the U.S. hospitality pavilion where a few conferees cluster around a video about ocean acidification and whizzes past the Chinese pavilion where friendly hosts hand out canvas totes adorned with traditional brush paintings.

In this kaleidoscope of humanity, one feature is universal: Each individual wears a lanyard from which hangs a color-coded photo ID — pink for delegates, gold for observers, green for journalists, blue for staff. Without one of these official ID badges, no one has a prayer of getting past the massive electronic screening devices and the squadron of security guards that protect the COP19 — the 19th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Insiders call it simply the UNF Triple C. The “parties” are the 195 industrialized and developing nations that have been meeting together since 1995 to hammer out a cooperative global agreement limiting the fossil fuel emissions that are warming Planet Earth to dangerous — potentially devastating — levels.

In all, 10,000 people hold U.N. credentials for the two-week event in Warsaw. “The population of my whole country would fit inside this stadium,” says a delegate from the tiny South Pacific island nation of Nauru one chilly morning as she hurries inside. “There are 10,000 minds here working on this problem.”

Walker, a professor of speech communication at Oregon State University and a specialist in environmental conflict resolution, is after an audience with as many of those 10,000 minds as he can reach. He wears two hats for his climate change endeavors: advocacy and research. In his advocacy hat, he tries to persuade delegates to craft a global agreement containing conflict-resolution language to ward off violence as people struggle to adapt to rising seas, shifting rains, food shortages and water scarcity. To spread his message, he makes presentations, leads committees and talks with delegates and observers, one-to-one, every chance he gets. “It’s all about relationships,” he says.

Gregg Walker heads to the Global Landscapes Forum, part of the United Nations climate change conference in Warsaw. (Photo: Tomasz Sobecki)
Gregg Walker heads to the Global Landscapes Forum, part of the United National climate change conference in Warsaw. (Photo: Tomasz Sobecki)

In his research hat, he observes, listens and collects documents, all of which he will analyze once the series of negotiations ends in 2015. The chance to witness, first-hand, this historical process — clearly, the ultimate international negotiation ever undertaken — is too good to miss for this lifelong communications scholar.

Being both a scholar and an advocate is, Walker concedes, a delicate balancing act. “It’s a continual challenge to make sure my research agenda and my advocacy agenda are compatible — that I’m not compromising one to serve the other,” he says.

Mediating Peace

With the gold badge of an official observer dangling from his neck, Walker is making his way along Level 2 of the eight-level mega-meeting facility that wraps around Stadion Narodowy, Poland’s national soccer stadium. The red-and-silver structure with soaring spires seems to hover, spaceship-like, on the east bank of Warsaw’s Vistula River. While many of the participants look a bit overwhelmed by the size and scope of the conference, Walker appears completely at ease. After all, he’s been attending these climate conferences for half a decade. The singular culture of international climate change negotiations has become, for him, as comfy as a beanbag chair.

The professor gets his UNFCCC credentials through an international nonprofit called Mediators Beyond Borders (MBB), one of several hundred UNFCCC “official observer organizations” that have sent representatives to Warsaw. Like MBB, most observer groups are NGOs (non-governmental organizations). Their missions include environmental advocacy (The Nature Conservancy, Climate Action Network, Rainforest Alliance, for example), philanthropy (Carnegie, Rockefeller, Clinton), humanitarian aid and development (Save the Children, Family Health International), higher education (MIT, Rutgers, Stanford, Oxford) and research (Max Planck, Brookings, Woods Hole). There are faith groups and indigenous peoples groups. There are groups dedicated to wildlife, to environmental justice, to business and industry.

Working in troubled places such as Colombia, Israel and Sierra Leone, Walker’s group builds local partnerships for unity and peace founded on mediation and other conflict-resolution strategies. As co-director of MBB’s Climate Change Project, he and his colleagues are lobbying to weave the language of peaceful conflict resolution into the final climate agreement. Ultimately, they’re promoting the inclusion of a single sentence in Article 14 of the negotiated text: “Recognizing that conflicts and disputes are an inevitable and adverse effect of climate change, the Parties are encouraged to use mediation, conciliation, arbitration, and actions before the International Court of Justice to settle their climate change conflicts and disputes.”

Recognizing that conflicts and disputes are an inevitable and adverse effect of climate change, the Parties are encouraged to use mediation, conciliation, arbitration, and actions before the International Court of Justice to settle their climate change conflicts and disputes.

Since 2009, Walker and the MBB team have been boarding jets to all corners of the Earth — Denmark, Qatar, Mexico, South Africa, Germany and now Poland — carrying that one critical sentence in their pocket, sharing it with anyone who will listen.

“Side events” are one place they find receptive audiences. In Warsaw, Walker shares the MBB message with about 80 conferees at a side event — unofficial presentations given by observer groups as add-ons to the official negotiation sessions. Holding a microphone and pacing about the room energetically, “he gets everyone involved, asking questions,” MBB ambassador and attorney Suzanna Norbeck reports.

Exhibit booths are another platform for getting the word out. One morning during the conference’s first week, Walker is deep in conversation with an African delegate who has stopped by the MBB booth, one of 150 small booths lining a mazelike Exhibition Hall. While most display piles of glossy handouts or even play videos on a continuous loop, the MBB booth sports a few fact sheets printed modestly on tinted computer paper. Instead of full-color brochures, Walker and his team rely on dialog.

The African delegate identifies himself to Walker as a member of parliament in Namibia and a marine engineer desperate to short-circuit his country’s fast-spreading desertification by “greening” the Kalahari. “Namibia is not receiving enough rain,” says the man named Moses. “Animals are dying. People are chopping down trees for income. We have to give them another option, low-cost technology for the grassroots, cheap, so they will stop cutting the trees.” Walker listens as Moses’ words tumble from him urgently, as if he feels the blade of the axe with every syllable. Handing Moses his OSU business card, the professor suggests they continue the dialog by email.

As a key MBB team member, Walker alternates shifts at the booth with several others, including founding member and Climate Change Project co-director Mark Kirwin, an attorney who also runs the Kirwin Foundation dedicated to international relief efforts. “We’re so lucky to have Gregg’s vast experience in mediation, international negotiation and even forestry,” says Norbeck. “He follows progress on the climate talks every day. He’s a perfect resource for MBB.”

During his stay in Warsaw, Walker exchanges business cards with a professor at the University of Mumbai, a regional director for the Clinton Foundation’s Climate Initiative, the climate change coordinator for FANRPAN (Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network) in Pretoria, and a trustee with the Shree Vivekanand Research and Training Institute in Mumbai. And that’s just a drop in Walker’s orange rucksack. Once he gets home, he’ll reach out to his myriad contacts in hopes of broadening his network and fostering new relationships that can grease the path to a climate treaty favorable to peaceful conflict resolution.

Climate Wordsmiths

Switching hats again, from advocate to scholar, Walker leaves Norbeck in command of the booth and charges down the corridor toward the Crakow Room. “This should be interesting,” Walker says, slipping into a space dominated by a massive rectangular table where delegates from 40 or 50 countries sit at microphones. A facilitator is leading the discussion: the hyper-detailed fine-tuning of a report on climate change adaptation strategies. As the working group debates the relative merits of certain verbs (“urge” versus “encourage”), adjectives (whether “serious” should modify “shortfall”) and terms that can obfuscate rather than clarify (“‘Leverage’ is just government jargonese,” grouses a Canadian delegate), Walker — who has been scribbling in a spiral notebook — leans over and whispers, “You wonder how they can ever reach consensus.”

No matter how winding or narrow the road to a climate agreement, Gregg Walker will be there. (Photo: Tomasz Sobecki)
No matter how winding or narrow the road to a climate agreement, Gregg Walker will be there. (Photo: Tomasz Sobecki)

International negotiation — legalistically precise, infinitely complex, and exceedingly slow — is one of Professor Walker’s lifelong fields of study. What better laboratory for a scholar of multilateral consensus-building than this worldwide endeavor to push back global warming? As an expert on the U.N. Law of the Sea Convention — a worldwide treaty forged by 160 nations between 1973 and 1982 — Walker thought he had seen the ultimate in international consensus. “At the time,” he says, “the Law of the Sea was the most complex multilateral international agreement ever.”

Not anymore. As Walker globe hops from climate conference to climate conference, he is trying to unravel a discursive Gordian knot unprecedented in human history. To a scholar, it’s both maddening and captivating. “I’ve been studying, teaching and writing about international negotiations for 25 years — the Law of the Sea, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), arms control negotiations and agreements,” he says. “But now I’m seeing language used in ways I’ve never imagined.”

Take the word “intervention,” for example. “Every time someone speaks at a plenary session, it’s called an intervention,” Walker explains. Another odd usage is the term “non-paper,” which referred to certain reports submitted by delegations. “I asked one of the delegates, ‘Why are they called non-papers?’” Walker recalls. “He said, ‘I think it’s because we don’t want it to sound official.’ So it’s not a formal paper like a submission. It’s more of a discussion piece.”

Toward this end, he is gleaning from the talks a “representative sample” of the formal and informal papers and discussions that reflect the broad diversity of the overall “discourse,” which he defines as “any language-based communication.” He then uses his original Unifying Negotiations Framework to sort and organize the material. He created the framework with fellow researchers Steven Daniels of Utah State and Jens Emborg of the University of Copenhagen. Published recently in Conflict Resolution Quarterly, it “draws attention to cultural, institutional, motivational and other factors for organizing and interpreting the discourse.”

From its initial focus on fossil fuel reduction, the UNFCCC has over the years broadened its scope. That’s because even if the parties agree to (and then abide by) a severe reduction in emissions going forward, the greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere will warm the planet for many decades to come, scientists agree. Island nations, coastal communities and arid countries already are facing severe challenges from climate-related inundation, flooding and drought. To address the escalating threats, the convention now stands on “four pillars”: mitigation (reducing greenhouse gases), adaptation (building resilient communities), technology (creating and disseminating low-emissions energy sources) and finance (contributing to various “green funds” to assist poor countries). Other hot-button topics in Warsaw include gender (the role of women in climate mitigation and adaptation), capacity building (empowering local communities with technology and know-how) and “loss and damage” (compensation for climate-related displacement and destruction).

“It’s nice to say something”

Gregg Walker helps to coordinate a coalition of climate-change research organizations known as RINGOs.

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The gray-bearded academic who schlepps two laptops, two cell phones and an iPad in his rucksack has been a steady presence at UNFCCC since Barcelona in 2009. He’s brimming with nonstop stories that begin, “When I was in Doha (or Cancun or Durban or Bonn)…” Usually, he finances his travels personally by teaching extra classes and, as an adjunct professor in OSU’s College of Forestry, facilitating collaborative projects for the U.S. Forest Service. For the Warsaw trip, he received a Faculty Internationalization Grant from the university. Still, he’s traveling on the cheap as he always does, riding mass transit, avoiding fancy restaurants (he munches on trail mix in lieu of lunch) and steering clear of cushy digs (he rents a utility apartment with a fridge and a stove). At the Cancun conference in 2010, he took a 20-minute dip in the Gulf of Mexico, but his heart wasn’t in it. Those sorts of frills (pearly beaches, turquoise seas) make him uncomfortable. He dried off and went back to work.

Acronym Soup

The No. 1 tool in Warsaw is talk. The lingua franca is English. For those who need it, simultaneous interpretation is available in six other languages through headsets. But even native English speakers often find themselves in need of translation. That’s because international climate negotiations have their own arcane vocabulary, much of which swims in an opaque soup of acronyms. Every discussion is larded with terms like NAMA, LAPA and NAPA; RINGO, BINGO and ENGO; ADP, MRV, GHG and LDC; SBI, AOSIS, UNEP, REDD, REDD+ and LULUCF. This alphabetic shorthand has the effect, whether intended or not, of sanitizing the meaning behind the symbols.

In Warsaw, where tensions between rich and poor nations loom large and the dialog’s glacial pace incites widespread discontent (and even a last-minute walkout in protest), debate on one big topic hinged, in the end, on one little word. The final negotiation session on loss and damage — how to compensate countries for climate-related death and destruction — came down to 11th-hour word wrangling over the preposition “under.”

As Walker tells it, a delegate from Fiji, speaking on behalf of the G77 & China coalition, stated that the developing countries were “on the brink of consensus,” agreeing to “every single word of the document — except for the word ‘under’. Then a delegate from the Philippines linked the word ‘under’ to trust. He called for the bold step of getting that one word out of the way. Next, a delegate from Bangladesh asserts that the parties are still a world apart if the word ‘under’ remains in the text.” The conflict, which may seem trivial on the surface, arose from this question: Should the mechanism for loss and damage be incorporated “under” the existing Cancun Adaptation Framework (negotiated in Mexico in 2010)? Or should the delegates create an autonomous, stand-alone mechanism, a type of international FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency that handles natural disasters in the United States)? Despite the protestations, “under” remained in the final wording of what is now known as the “Warsaw mechanism” for loss and damage.

Words for a Global Crisis

Words may seem to be a weak weapon against mass extinction, but taken as a whole they embody the spirit of collective strength that drives the UNFCCC process. That spirit rejects alarm, panic and despair, instead embracing reason, calm and optimism. When, on the first day of the conference, Philippines delegate Yeb Sano wept openly at the plenary session as he pleaded for action just hours after Super Typhoon Haiyan (which he characterized as an “extreme climate event”) had crashed through his country, the horrifying stakes of unmitigated greenhouse gases burst into the polite dialog. For a moment, the world’s delegates shared Sano’s anguish at what he called the “madness” of the climate crisis. But just as quickly, they turned back to the sterile-seeming business at hand: Drafting an international climate change agreement to replace the recently expired Kyoto Protocol by 2015, when the UNFCCC convenes in Paris.

This is where Walker digs in as a researcher. For one thing, he’s trying to ferret out the “dominant discourses” that drive this vast landscape of conversations. Certain mismatched assumptions can sabotage understanding, he asserts.

“The statements of developing countries are often grounded in culture,” he explains. “For them, it’s about survival, about preserving one’s culture and national identity. On the other hand, the developed countries — Japan, Canada, the U.S., the EU — are focused on economic sustainability. They tend to emphasize institutional and structural aspects, such as verifiability and accountability. So you wonder, how do we find common ground between a country like the Maldives, which is worried about staying above water, both figuratively and literally, and a country like the U.S. which, while not ignoring the Maldives, is worried about jobs and economic recovery? Choosing between jobs and the environment is, in my opinion, a false dichotomy, but it has become part of the discourse. That’s the kind of stuff I’m interested in figuring out.”

How do we find common ground between a country like the Maldives, which is worried about staying above water, both figuratively and literally, and a country like the U.S. which, while not ignoring the Maldives, is worried about jobs and economic recovery?

For another thing, Walker is trying to identify how the climate talks correspond — or fail to correspond — with the research literature on negotiation theory and practice. He offers up an example. “International negotiation scholars urge dividing up complex matters into smaller, more manageable decisions,” he says, citing Harvard professor Roger Fisher’s recommendation to “fractionate” troublesome issues. “But the parties to the UNFCCC have committed themselves to an all-or-nothing approach.”

For the Duration

At the end of each long day, Walker and the other conferees head for their hotel rooms, flop on the bed and flip on the TV. On Al Jazeera and CNN, Typhoon Haiyan dominates the news with images of crumpled cities. In Somalia, a cyclone has left a trail of death and debris. In Vietnam and Australia, unprecedented floods have scoured the land, while in the American Midwest killer tornadoes have crushed neighborhoods. In the blue glow of their hotel TV, the conferees watch survivors blink dazedly at the litter of their lives. They observe parents carrying their children through raging floodwaters. They witness the stakes of their deliberations in real time and then, in the morning, they return to the task at hand.

For Walker, that task is two-fold: Understanding a process that seems to defy understanding, and winning acceptance of a single sentence amidst the clamor of 10,000 voices. Temperamentally, Walker is up to the task, bringing powers of observation honed over decades, an easy-going and gregarious nature and a bottomless font of patience.

One delegate, after listening to Walker’s case for conflict-resolution language, replied, “Everything you’ve told me makes sense, but we have bigger issues to resolve before we get to yours.”

“That’s fine,” Walker answered. “I’ll be here.”