Climate change blog
A world heading to a devastating crisis The global climate change problem remains dire; progress is difficult to detect. Credit: NASA

J. Timmons Roberts:
The torturously slow progress of climate change negotiations

As he packed his bags to leave Cancun, J. Timmons Roberts, director of the Center for Environmental Studies and professor of sociology and environmental studies, saw value in having made the trip and participating in sessions, but the U.N. climate change negotiations did not improve a dire global situation. (Read student-written Cancun blogs.)
By J. Timmons Roberts  |  December 9, 2010  |  Email to a friend

The sunny skies of Cancun have not been enough to lift the gloom of the U.N. negotiations on climate change, and I’m still waiting for some glimmers of compromise to lift my own somewhat overcast mood. As the countdown to the final 48 hours to reach a deal here arrives, no one has any great expectations left. But fortunately they’re apparently not giving up hope for a change in the weather.

Even the normally chipper Ban Ki-Moon sounded desperate to show the U.N. system he heads could come through with something ... anything: “We don’t need final agreement on all the issues, but we do need progress on all the fronts. We cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

All smiles, but a little less optimism: The Brown delegation included, from left, Kelly Rogers, Timmons Roberts, Guy Edwards, Adam Kotin, Spencer Lawrence, Michelle Levinson, Emily Kirkland, and Arielle Balbus.  (Not pictured: Cecilia Pineda, Sara Mershas, David Ciplet, and Diana Graizbord.) All smiles, but a little less optimism The Brown delegation included, from left, Kelly Rogers, Timmons Roberts, Guy Edwards, Adam Kotin, Spencer Lawrence, Michelle Levinson, Emily Kirkland, and Arielle Balbus. (Not pictured: Cecilia Pineda, Sara Mershas, David Ciplet, and Diana Graizbord.) I suppose one has to find a way to cope with torturously slow progress of the U.N. negotiations on climate change. I’ve been chanting the “good, not perfect, maybe anything” mantra for a couple of years now: Let’s get something agreed, and we can improve on it as we build trust and confidence that addressing this desperate problem will not spell disaster and can bring its own benefits.

Danish representative to the E.U. Connie Hedegaard had clear frustration in her countenance Tuesday at the opening of the “High Level Segment” of the talks: “We know it is imperative that we deliver something here in Cancun. To come out of Cancun with nothing is simply not an option. ... For the credibility of the negotiations, we must prove that this process leads to progress.”

So as I pack my bags after a week here, and having brought 10 eager Brown students into the complex and often depressing world of U.N. negotiations over climate change, it is with very mixed feelings. Going home feels a bit like giving up: These things take a lot of time; one must take the long view.

Personally, my time here has been extraordinarily successful, as I presented at three “side events,” which are conference-style presentations of policy papers in a meeting hall on the margins of the negotiations. I organized one for the first time, under the banner of Brown’s Watson Institute and the Oxford Institute of Energy Studies. By being here I was able to hold formal and informal meetings with a half dozen European research organizations on the relationship between climate and economic development and meet informally with staff from the U.S. Agency for International Development and the OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development], the provider of the world’s benchmark data on my area of research: foreign assistance. I attended two workshops and met with the network of Latin American groups with whom we have launched our new Web portal on climate change in the region ( And I renewed relationships with dozens of colleagues and collaborators from three continents, and met gobs of new people from six.

So coming to Cancun saved me two or three trips to Europe and one to Latin America, making me feel a little bit better about the carbon burned to get me here. The stack of business cards is almost an inch thick. My dad, who was in possession of truly superhuman schmoozing skills, might have been proud.

And the Brown delegation has accomplished a lot. After a bit of a slow start in the first week, when we struggled with Cancun’s bad internet access and were sorting out our plan of attack, the blog is now up and running. There are today loads of new postings and videos in English and Spanish by Latin Americans, Brown students, and the project’s manager, Guy Edwards. It’s been inspiring to see Brown students take on a totally new and undefined project with such enthusiasm and effectiveness. And at the risk of sounding ancient, I should say that they possess a whole new set of skills for blogging and editing videos and audios on their notebook computers that I entirely lack.

These thoughts help with dispersing some of the clouds over my mood in sunny Cancun. While experiencing professional accomplishments in a crucial area of research, renewing friendships, and working with smart students are wonderful opportunities that I treasure, doing so in a world that is heading to a devastating crisis rings pretty hollow. Piles of new studies show that the situation is dire and we should have started a serious response a decade ago.

In retrospect, maybe I should have spent more time on Cancun’s beaches or at least gone to the Museum of Tequila.