By Antara Haldar
Special to The Times Kuwait
The Pulitzer-nominated play Other Desert Cities, set in Palm Springs, California, tells a tale about a fractured family’s struggles to establish dialogue across political divides. More than a decade after the play premiered in 2011, the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28), held in another desert city, offered a macrocosmic telling of the same story.
The real-life version, set in Dubai, was also rife with conflict, and the stakes were as high as ever. Many objected to the fact that such a crucial summit would be hosted by the oil-rich United Arab Emirates. Adding insult to injury, the master of ceremonies was none other than the president of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), Sultan Al Jaber.
At one point during the conference, the UAE was reported to be striking new oil and gas deals on the sidelines, calling into question its motivation for hosting the event. Then, Al Jaber reportedly claimed that there is “no science” to show that phasing out fossil fuels is necessary to achieve the Paris climate agreement’s 1.5° Celsius warming target. None of these revelations boded well for a summit whose agenda included the first “global stocktake”: an international audit, prescribed by the Paris agreement, to determine whether countries are on track to achieve their emissions-reduction targets.
But two arduous weeks of negotiations ended with praise for Al Jaber and a ‘sweeping agreement’ that explicitly mentions ‘fossil fuels’ for the first time ever. Though largely rhetorical, such language represents a breakthrough that was almost 30 years in the making. All previous agreements had avoided naming names or directly acknowledging the predominant role that fossil fuels (coal, oil, and gas) play in causing climate change. Even better, this COP also made progress on other fronts, such as by committing countries to triple their renewable-energy capacity and radically reduce their emissions of methane, an especially potent (albeit shorter-lasting) greenhouse gas, as well some headway on the loss and damage fund for developing countries.
What explains the change in the story? Perhaps it was the host country going off script. After negotiations apparently stalled, Al Jaber ultimately saved face by announcing an intervention less than 48 hours before the scheduled end of the summit.
Specifically, he called for a majlis (‘place of sitting’), a longstanding Arab tradition of fostering constructive dialogue by removing distractions and engaging with one another directly. While the structure can vary widely – from informal tête-à-tête and intellectual exchanges to quasi-judicial or quasi-legislative conferences – the key function is to blur the line between sociability and business. As an important feature of social and political life across much of the Islamic world, the practice has been designated by UNESCO as a “intangible cultural heritage of humanity.”
Far from some cultural gimmick, Al Jaber’s innovative revision to the COP process seems to have been the key to breaking the deadlock. In traditional majlis fashion, delegates broke form by sitting in concentric circles, signaling the absence of a leader in the conversation. All were encouraged to embrace the spirit of flexibility and compromise, which meant abandoning their well-rehearsed “talking points.”
These tweaks fundamentally changed the tone of the negotiations. Participants later attested to the success of the majlis in fostering “frank and deep discussions” and a “heart-to-heart exchange.” A typically sterile and highly formal forum acquired shades of the bayt al she’r, the goat-hair tents used by nomadic Bedouin, who know as well as anyone that the more treacherous the climate becomes, the more important it is to create fora for building inter-tribal trust.
To be sure, there has been growing skepticism about the efficacy of the unanimity-focused Paris agreement more broadly, and the initial reactions to COP28 have been similarly ambivalent. But, as I argued in a paper published earlier this year, consensus-building – what the majlis achieved – remains a superior option to coercion. The Paris agreement may break the mold of international covenants, but its approach is supported by a growing body of theory – from Elinor Ostrom’s groundbreaking look at “governing the commons” to Oliver Hart’s work on “relational contracts.” The reason, as Tom Tyler’s research on the psychology of compliance shows, is that intrinsic motivation is often more compelling than external threats.
As unexpected as it was, the COP28 outcome could be a notable successor to COP21, where the Paris climate agreement was concluded. With his inspired adaptation of the majlis, Al Jaber represented his country and culture well and, by demonstrating the procedural wisdom of Eastern cultural practices (often neglected in global talks) and acknowledging the role of emotion in international diplomacy, shook up international climate governance. Such shifts in the culture of climate governance are sorely needed to ensure that the Global South remains front and center, not just as a recipient of handouts but as a repository of epistemic wisdom.
Of course, COP28 was far from perfect. The wording about fossil fuels may have been unprecedented, but it was also greatly watered down, and the final agreement was deeply disappointing to small island states and advocates hoping for stronger concrete commitments on climate finance.
But like Other Desert Cities, the summit may have turned out to be a masterclass in the art of communication – and the unlikely tale of redemption that we need after this climate-ravaged, overheated, war-torn year. The lesson from Dubai is that trust-building institutional breakthroughs are just as important as the scientific and technological kind, and not only for climate governance.
Associate Professor of Empirical Legal Studies at the University of Cambridge, is a visiting faculty member at Harvard University and the principal investigator on a European Research Council grant on law and cognition.
Copyright: Project Syndicate