Why Join a Coalition? Climate Change and International Negociation. Interview with Carola Klöck


Carola Klöck has recently coedited a volume entitled Coalitions in the Climate Change Negociations (Routledge). The volume provides a broad overview of cooperation patterns in climate change negotiations and an in-depth analysis of specific coalitions and their relations. Why do countries decide to join a coalition, and what are the potential costs of acting through coalitions? Are there specificities of coalitions in the climate change negociations? These are among the questions we asked Carola.

Why have you decided to work on coalitions? What gap in the literature do you seek to fill with this work?

All UN negotiations are structured by coalitions or negotiation groups. Through coalitions, the entire process becomes more manageable, as it is much easier to recognize positions and find potential overlaps between say 10 actors than between almost 200 individual countries. It is simply not feasible to reach compromise and agreements among more than 190 different national positions. At the same time, through coalitions, countries can enhance their negotiation capacity and make their voice heard more. For example, a country like Tuvalu in the South Pacific, with a population of just 11,000, just doesn’t have the resources to send a big delegation to climate summits. Tuvalu, just as so many other small states also does not have enough experts in international law, climatology, and forestry—all of which is needed to fully engage in the climate change negotiations, and to participate in the many discussions, consultations and negotiations that often occur at the same time. So forming (or joining existing) coalitions has two advantages: it reduces the complexity of the negotiation process, and it improves the capacity and power of individual countries, especially the smallest and poorest ones.

However, although coalitions play such a central role in multilateral negotiations, they have received surprisingly little scholarly attention. There is of course a number of studies that examine for example the EU in climate negotiations; there is also some work on other coalitions, but overall the literature is surprisingly limited. The book wants to expand that literature, and in particular bring together work from different perspectives, and cover more than one coalition at the same time. We have several quantitative chapters that look at cooperation patterns across all countries, we also have a chapter that takes a historical-institutionalist perspective, and then we have a number of case studies on different coalitions from across the world, including e.g. the Pacific islands, Latin America, and African countries.

Indigenous Activist COP25 Madrid

Indigeneous activist Diara Tukano (Brazil) during the Madrid COP 25 conference. Image copyright: Christine Thao Tyler, Shutterstock

Are there any specificities of coalitions during climate summits and the other arenas of negotiation for the climate? In other words, are there types of coalitions that would be specific to these rounds of negotiations?

The climate change negotiations are particularly interesting for scholars of coalitions. Normally UN negotiations are structured by regional groups; so African countries work together, Asian countries work together, etc. In the climate negotiations, there are many different coalitions. There is the EU, the African Group of negotiators, which are regional groups. We also see a number of regional organisations like the Central American Integration System that have started to coordinate within climate negotiations as well. But there are also a number of coalitions that have specifically been created to advance climate positions: for example, the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) brings together island states from all regions. AILAC (Independent Association of Latin America and the Caribbean) brings together a few Latin American and Caribbean states specifically for the climate negotiations. The Coalition for Rainforest Nations unites countries with rainforest cover around forestry and climate change. So there is a wide variety of groups, with different memberships (both regional and global, small and large), different thematic scopes (that are focused on climate change only, like AILAC, or that cover a broad range of issues, like the EU) and different modes of organisation (from very formal, like the EU, to very informal).

We would really need more comparative work on coalitions across issue areas (e.g., climate change, trade, biodiversity) to understand the specificities of the climate negotiations, whereas here we seek to better understand the variation within the climate domain.

Paris COP 21 meeting Copyright: Shutterstock

Speech by the Ukranian President during the PARIS COP 21 Meeting. November 2015. Copyright: Drop of Light, Shutterstock

Is this a new phenomenon? Are there clear moments in the history of climate summits that mark durable changes?

The climate change negotiations have been organised by coalitions right from the start in the early 1990s, and some coalitions (like the EU or AOSIS) have been active since that period. Over time, the number of coalitions has grown. In particular around the infamous 2009 Copenhagen Summit, and to a lesser extent around the 2015 Paris Summit, there has been a flurry of new groups that emerged or started to coordinate also within the climate negotiations. Many of these groups remain active, but one of the open questions is to understand when groups form, and how their level of activity changes over time.

Are coalitions one-shot or do they aim at long term transformations and political lobbying?

Some research on coalitions argues that groups are created to achieve specific objectives, and that they disband once those objectives have been met. However, we find for the climate negotiations that coalitions are “sticky”: they tend to persist, once formed. It clearly takes time and effort to bring together different countries in a coalition. We shouldn’t forget that countries are very diverse and have very different national interests. Even in rather homogeneous and tight coalitions like AOSIS or the EU, we observe a wide variety of interests —for example, Poland is much more reluctant to adopt ambitious climate policies than more progressive countries like Sweden. So building a coalition is resource intensive, and it seems that countries are reluctant to give up that investment by dissolving a coalition again. However, as noted above, the level of activity changes over time. At certain points, for example ahead of the 2015 Paris Summit, most coalitions were very active, whereas we may see less coordination when negotiations become again more technical and less political.

Moana Blue Pacific Pavillon COP 25 Copyright Carola Kloeck

COP 25 - Moana Blue Pacific Pavillon. Kiribati’s president Maamau speaks about the impacts of cilmate change in his country - 93 % of extra Heat trapped by manmade global warming pollution goes into the Ocean - Photos by Carola Kloeck

Why does a state join a coalition and what could be the potential cost for a state to join a coalition? Can a state join several coalitions, and if so, does the cost vs benefit ratio change?

This is a very interesting question! I already spoke about the advantages of forming a coalition above. Especially smaller and poorer countries that lack expertise and resources depend more strongly on coordination with like-minded countries in coalitions. That’s one of the reasons that small island states have become influential as a group, when nobody would have listened to them individually. So we find that those countries are more likely to join and work through coalitions. At the same time, this comes at a cost: the joint position of the coalition is necessarily a compromise position that may actually be relatively far from an individual member’s national position. And it is of course also costly and time intensive to coordinate as a group and to find these compromise positions. States also can and do join several coalitions. As noted above, new coalitions have emerged over time, while coalitions also persist, meaning that countries accumulate coalition memberships. A country may hence be part of the G77—the group of developing countries—plus AOSIS, plus the African Group of Negotiators, plus the Least Developed Countries, for example. In principle, there is no limit on how many groups a country joins (although of course not all countries can participate in all groups; AOSIS is reserved for island states, the African Group is for African countries only, etc.), and some countries are indeed member of five, six or even more different coalitions.

To what extent this is problematic because it creates more complexity, requires more resources to coordinate, and creates tensions, or to what extent this is helpful as it allows countries to build bridges and forge alliances across coalitions is another open question that I have started to explore but hopefully will be able to study in more depth over the next years.


Further reading

Carola Klöck, “Multiple Coalition Memberships: Helping or Hindering Small States in Multilateral (Climate) Negotiations?”, International Negotiations, 25(2), 2020: 279-297.

Carola Klöck & Paula Castro, INOGOV POLICY BRIEF – Coalitions in global climate change negotiations , No 5/Aug 2018.

From our website

“Chronicles from the Field: COP 25,” by Carola Klöck

The CERI Resources on the environment, climate change and natural disasters.

Cover image: Indigeneous and Environmental leaders at the Madrid COP25. Copyright: Christine Thoa Tyler, Shutterstock

Interview by Miriam Périer, CERI

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