We can learn something about democracy from the UN climate negotiations

The UN climate negotiations work by consensus. In the negotiating sessions, diplomats review the text of proposed policies in excruciating detail. It is normal to spend an hour discussing the suitability of the word “encourage” vs. “ask” in a particular sentence.

The negotiations, though painful at times to watch, are very civil. They have to be: the end goal is an agreement with which every party is comfortable. Vitriol rarely paves a path to consensus.

Contrast this with the current state of politics and governance in countries like the U.S. and Canada. Decisions are often reached by majority-rule. If one party captures 50% plus one of the vote – or of the electoral college – that party can make decisions with little concern for the minority position. In a multi-party parliamentary system like Canada’s, 40% of the vote is often sufficient to win a majority and make 100% of the decisions.

Governments in majority-rule systems can carefully consider and respect the views of minority parties. However, there is often little incentive today to do so. That means there’s also little incentive for the opposition to be reasonable. If the only way to significantly influence policy is to defeat or embarrass the government, then you may as well oppose or obstruct any policy the governing party proposes just in order to get a “win” in the eye of your supporters. The outcome is childish political theatre and name-calling.

Governing by consensus certainly has limitations. It allows an unreasonable minority to block progress. It leads to conservative decisions which are insufficient to address challenging long-term issues or the concerns of rightfully aggrieved minorities. This is a key criticism of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC): the requirement to reach consensus leads to arguably insufficient attention to lower probability but higher risk impacts of climate change.

Still, imagine how different the reaction to Trump’s electoral college win would be in a rule by consensus system. There would be some comfort in the knowledge that minority voices will be considered in all decisions, rather than the panic that the party which eked out a narrow victory can completely undo policies supported by the opposition (and, in many cases, the majority of the population!). The process itself would also be far more respectful.

The UN climate negotiations may be too slow and too ineffective. Yet unlike the political process in North America, you would not be ashamed to let your children watch.

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