Negotiating by numbers – Far from certainty and agreement in Copenhagen

1 12 2009

“Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted” – Albert Einstein


With the current climate negotiations about to open formally in Copenhagen next week, we at Ashridge are looking on with interest, excitement and some trepidation. In particular at how 15,000 delegates can be successfully brought into effective dialogue and participation, to get their diverse voices and needs heard.


We frequently use a model here at Ashridge, derived from the work of Ralph Stacey and Bill Critchley, that considers what happens in social interactions when we are far from certainty and far from agreement. It’s a model that draws on complexity thinking and I find it an invaluable framework for understanding what is going on in Copenhagen right now.


We are far from certainty about the impacts of climate change: Whilst there is overwhelming consensus among the scientific community now that climate change is happening, that extreme weather events will become more frequent, and that rapid global de-carbonising of society is necessary, exactly how specific locations will be affected can only be considered in terms of probabilities.


We are far from agreement about how to respond: As Mike Hulme has pointed out, even if we can agree on how to interpret the science (and that’s a matter of much debate), we still have the issue of response, and how our framing of that response is constructed through our local cultural norms and social interactions. The ‘essential’ questions that need answers in Copenhagen look seductively rational at first glance…


1. How much are the industrialized countries willing to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases?

2. How much are major developing countries such as China and India willing to do to limit the growth of their emissions?

3. How is the help needed by developing countries to engage in reducing their emissions and adapting to the impacts of climate change going to be financed?

4. How is that money going to be managed?   (Yvo de Boer, Executive Secretary, UNFCCC).


…. but the answers hinge upon some deeply entrenched and often unquestioned assumptions about some very non-rational and potentially emotive issues: about social responsibility across human-constructed borders and across generations; about blame, shame and justice; about ownership, property and individual identity; and about our attitudes to risk, probability and leadership. I could go on.


However, as Fred Pearce is keen to point out this week, ‘there is good news too’. We have demonstrated historically our human capacity for pretty rapid societal change – just consider the technological and social changes of the last 50 years.


And as Stacey and Critchley have discussed (link?), systems that are far from certainty and far from agreement – that are at the ‘edge of chaos’ – have an incredible capacity for creativity and the flourishing of innovation. As we move out towards the far reaches away from certainty and agreement, and just before we tip into complete chaos, radical change is possible.  But it’s possible if we are willing to surface and question our own assumptions about how the world is and should be, experiment with new thinking and engage in novel ways, and yet with some clarity of purpose. There has never been such an urgent need to do so, and such opportunity to fundamentally shift our global political, economic and social paradigm.





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