Reflections on COP17: Applying Model UN to the UNFCCC

I don’t know how many Model UNs I’ve been to, but I’ve only been to one actual, real, proper United Nations conference: COP17 in Durban.  My UN Youth New Zealand experience was invaluable, but did not and could not fully prepare me for the experience of the Conference itself.  COP17 was the 17th Conference of the Parties under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or UNFCCC.  I attended as a member of the New Zealand Youth Delegation and occasionally blogged for the Adopt a Negotiator Project. I was one of around a thousand youth representatives at the Conference.

As youth delegates, we were there to lobby government negotiators; bear witness to what was happening and report back to our home countries; and do everything we could to campaign for recognition of youth interests.  The international youth climate movement is huge, truly multicultural, and inspiring.  It combines many of the things I loved most about the UN Youth with passionate and informed advocacy for intergenerational justice and an ambitious response to climate change.
We have limited opportunities to be heard in the negotiating session.  NGOs have few opportunities to formally speak.  On the third day, a Canadian girl I had barely met delivered a speech to the plenary session of the Ad-hoc Working Group on the Kyoto Protocol (that is, AWG-KP).  Another New Zealander, two Englishmen, and I had finished writing it in a dingy corner at our backpackers, Tekweni, at about 2 am that morning.  Two days later, delivering another speech written by the Tekweni After Midnight Drafting Committee, a South African boy scout asked negotiators in the same committee to raise their hands if they were there to solve climate change, and then to raise them again if they thought that the Conference could agree on a second commitment period to the Kyoto Protocol.  Many raised their hands to both – including New Zealand’s negotiator.

The negotiators did eventually agree on a second commitment period, but they did not solve climate change.  The two week conference officially ended on Friday 9 December 2011.  In truth, it ended at around 6:30 am on Sunday 11 December 2011.  Many of us in the international youth climate movement were operating on a similar sleep deficit.  I discuss the outcome and my personal views on it in a post on the Youth Delegation’s blog and set out my views on how New Zealand acted at Adopt a Negotiator.  In short, though: Things are grim, and civil society must speak with a renewed voice.

COP17 was a draining and exhausting experience.  Though I found the other youth representatives there inspiring, the Conference itself took a toll.  I am glad, however, for the foundation provided by my years of involvement in the UN Youth.  So, how, then, did UN Youth experience help me at Durban?

Obviously, Model UN gave me a basic understanding of how the UN processes work.  I understand what a plenary is, and how decisions are made.  I can read and comprehend UN documents and draft texts quite well – because of the UN Youth.  But’s that’s the very tip of the iceberg.

I learned to go without sleep as a UN Youth officeholder.  That might sound trivial and silly, but its importance can’t be stressed enough.   The last day of COP17 lasted 54 hours; COP’s Friday finished at 6:30 on Sunday morning.  Most of the negotiators, if New Zealand’s were anything to go by, had slept for less than three hours since the Wednesday. As NGO representatives, we managed a little more sleep.  Four hours was my average for each night.

If you were at the Conference centre from 9-5, you’d miss some of the best side events, most interesting last minute opportunities, and the best chances to speak to negotiators.  The sheer amount of time I spent at the conference centre meant that I came to understand its strange processes relatively quickly. It comes back to a simple point one of the senior lawyers at my office told me about working long hours: Twice the hours, twice the experience.  A first year lawyer who works 12 hours billable a day has the same experience as a second year who works six – and, in truth, probably more.

Of course, as well, every night, there were tasks to do back at the Hostel: blogs to write, Skype calls to make, speeches to draft.  Sleep was a rare luxury.

High school rowing taught me to wake up early, but it was the UN Youth that introduced me to the concept of “conference time”.  That’s the zone I lived in during COP17, familiar from organising several Model UNs: Wake at six.  Be there by eight.  Work until six, seven, or later.  Drink coffee.  Go home.  Prepare for the next day.  Rinse.  Repeat.  Writing speeches at Tekweni was not too different from writing speeches in the old, windowless UNYANZ office in the James Smith building.  Only difference was, the speeches I wrote at COP were delivered to plenary sessions of the UNFCCC.

The UN Youth taught me the importance of the meeting before the meeting.  Very little in the UNFCCC is truly decided in the final plenary.  The most important meetings are in cafes, in corridors, or just behind closed doors.  Lobbying and networking is key – both for negotiators and NGO representatives.  It sounds unbelievably trite, but who you know is as important as what you know.  Getting to know the right people can get you incredible information and opportunities.  The best opportunities I had at COP, we made ourselves.  Good things come those who hustle.

You know this, if you’ve been active at a Model UN.  It’s not the speeches that change other delegates’ minds; it’s the talks over lunch, the small groups formed, and the notes passed.  You can’t just propose an amendment and hope.  You need to secure the supporting signatures first.  And, at least in my day, the same thing applied at the organisational level of UNYANZ: Half the decisions made at an AGM or National Council meeting were made, just as much, around a cafe table weeks earlier.  It may sound underhand, but that’s how most organisations function – and that’s very much how the UN functions.  The open session, the plenary, the grand vote – that’s a rubber stamp.  The deal was cut the night before.

The UN Youth also taught me a lot about the internal politics and dynamics of youth organisations and delegations.  This helped me to become actively involved in the international youth movement, and led to me being caught up in doing damage control for some internal controversies within the movement at COP17.

So, what didn’t the UN Youth prepare me for?

First, the sheer, absolute, maddening inertia of the system.  When the youth movement actually gets to COP, the fix is already in.  The slow, inexorable, grinding cogs of the UNFCCC are in motion, and you can do very little to change it.  Sure, the outcome is uncertain until (at COP17 at least) only a few hours before the end, but the processes are fixed and set and utterly certain.

Imagine showing up at Model UN and discovering that the resolution is drafted, no amendments will be accepted, no new alliances will be formed, and, by the way, about three other delegates will listen to any of your speeches – if you luck out and even get to make one.

That’s about how it goes, for an NGO at COP.  You can do protest actions, in a small out of the way corner, but they’re reduced to mere street theatre.  Some delegations – including, to their credit, New Zealand’s – are open to engage with civil society.  But, even so, their objectives and parameters are set.  If you want to really change government climate policy, the key isn’t two weeks at COP17.  That’s too late.  The key is to join the youth climate movement back home and campaign, constantly – so that’s why I’m devoting my free time to Generation Zero this year.

Second, it did not and could not possibly prepare me for the emotional intensity of the COP experience.  I mean, sure, I’d learned through my UN Youth experience that the intensity of working closely with someone can make or break friendships – but, at COP, all of that is painted black, covered in spikes, and turned up to Spinal Tap 11.  Everyone is under extraordinary pressure.  I have shared more with people I knew for a mere two weeks than with some people I’ve know for years.  Not a day went by without someone from the NGO community sobbing.

And that’s absolutely, completely, totally right and understandable, because the COP process is dealing with the greatest human rights issue of our generation.  At COP, we spoke with the Ulu of Tokelau.  That is a man whose people have had their freshwater supply taken from them by climate change, already.  That is a man who knows that either he or his children, and everyone else of their entire culture, will become refugees, unless drastic action is taken now.  On the night before the conference, an unseasonal rainstorm caused flooding in a township on the outskirts of Durban.  Six people died.  350,000 people died in 2010 from the effects of climate change.  In that context, how can emotions not run high?  By comparison, a Model UN is a wholly ersatz experience.

Third, the UN Youth did not prepare me for the ever present fog of war at COP.  Or, to put it more bluntly, it didn’t prepare me for the fact that, in the NGO community, most people, most of the time, have very little idea what is actually going on.  Part of this is the scale of the thing.  You can’t compare COP to, say, New Zealand Model UN.  For sheer numbers, the Big Day Out is a closer parallel.  And there are constantly multiple tracks of debate, often highly specialised.  You can’t be everywhere at once.  The picture to the right is three random days from COP17 in my Google Calendar.

Even negotiators have this problem.  I’ve heard tales of negotiators with two portfolios where, for the entire Conference, all the meetings were at the same time.  So, one State wasn’t represented in one negotiating track – at all.

And you can’t be an expert on forestry and climate funding and agriculture and technology transfer and the Kyoto Protocol and and and all at the same time.  You have to pick your battles.  I did, focusing on the AWG-LCA and AWG-KP.  I still don’t understand half of what happened – and I wrote my honours in law on the Kyoto Protocol!


As so much of the debate happens behind closed doors and you can’t feasibly get into all the open sessions you want to, you come to rely too much on rumours and hearsay.  I’ve heard negotiators lamenting press reports of things they said…that they didn’t say.  News spreads like wildfire.  Often, it’s right.  For example, we all knew that Canada was pulling out of the Kyoto Protocol two weeks before it did.  Other times, it’s not.  Have you ever been in a Model UN, when you think you know what’s happening, and suddenly a new amendment is proposed, that you didn’t know about, signed by countries you thought were your allies, that totally blindsides you?  Take that feeling.  Extend it for two weeks.  Sleep less.  Welcome to COP.

So, in summary, Model UN is a great initiative.  I value my time with the UN Youth greatly.  But it cannot compare to actually attending a United Nations conference.  If you ever get that chance, take it.  I return from Durban with new drive and new passion.  I am excited by the international youth climate movement, and feel betrayed by the UNFCCC system.  But – and perhaps I should credit the UN Youth for this – I understand that the system functioned as designed, made incremental progress, and did all that could reasonably be expected.  The UN will not solve climate change.  Only a mass popular movement will do that.