After Copenhagen: five solutions to help melt the global trust problem

The US wants reassurance on verfication and China wants protection from interference. These aren’t incompatible.

Near the close of Copenhagen on Dec. 18, climate change negotiators were stuck: China promised CO2 cuts. America demanded proof. China refused. “No transparency? No deal,” said the US. “Foreign intrusion? No deal,” said China. The talks almost froze as the world warmed. Ultimately, both agreed to submit to monitoring – but the promises they made were modest. Not the most hopeful solution.

There are better ways to solve the chilling conflict over transparency.

The US and China are both defending serious interests: The West needs to be sure that each country involved will make good on its word; China presumably needs to protect itself from external interference. (Internal politics, a sad history of Western mistreatment, and cultural discomfort with controls may deepen that feeling.)

The US wants reassurance, China wants autonomy and respect. These concerns aren’t incompatible. The following five solutions can help melt the lack of trust problem.

Nonintrusive monitoring

Make compliance (or breach of agreement) obvious from the outside. Your neighbor may not want you to come inside and look around to see how much wood he burns, but it may be easy for you to watch his chimneys. This “make-it-obvious” principle helped earlier treaty negotiators reduce oil spills on the high seas. Instead of banning hard-to-spot mid-ocean misconduct, they required ships to have antispill features easily observable from the dock.

How could this idea help after Copenhagen? Instead of trying to measure a country’s CO2 levels where inspectors are unwelcome, nations could use proxies that require less internal intrusion and are easy to measure remotely – from space, from weather observatories, from marine tests.

Focus on results, not behavior

The international community could rely less on verifying behavior and more on verifying results. It’s the difference between asking your neighbor to replace his wood stove with an electric model, and asking your neighbor to simply cut chimney smoke. Setting result requirements feels less controlling, gives greater latitude, creates less resentment, and potentially produces the same outcome anyway.

Infer breach

Use the process of elimination. Since China has been reluctant to allow inspectors to monitor serious CO2 cuts, negotiators could let China be the only major country to forgo verifiable CO2 cuts, provided that if world CO2 levels don’t fall, China would take responsibility. If most other countries’ emissions could be accounted for, then much of what remains would be China’s CO2 output.

Offer control

Give away control to help win trust. As the cold war ended, wary Soviet officials refused to let American nuclear weapons inspectors bring in a high-tech bomb detector, fearing it contained a spy device. The solution? Americans brought two identical detectors, and let the Soviets choose one to tear apart to look for spy devices. By giving up some control, the Americans gave the Soviets enough confidence to allow inspections. If it’s possible for negotiators to overcome Soviet concerns about letting inspectors in, then it may be possible to address Chinese anxiety, too. One way is to let China choose from a menu of different players and verification methods acceptable to the West. Another way: Pass a US climate bill to demonstrate US seriousness.

Get verification as a byproduct

Don’t emphasize “monitoring;” emphasize “deal benefits,” and treat transparency as a by-product. Negotiators can create face-saving verification arrangements so that if the parties see the verification process at all, they see it as largely serving other, more attractive interests.

ZipCar, for example, set up an array of self-protections to allow it to safely rent cars parked on the street. Yet instead of burdening the relationship, it called most of these requirements part of its membership process. Most customers, rather than feeling resentful, viewed membership as a chic, green way to be part of an in-group that can more conveniently rent cool cars. Instead of burdening the relationship, these self-protection mechanisms helped build high customer loyalty. Using protections in such ways can reduce (or even eliminate) the weight they can place on relationships.

How might this strategy work with future climate-change talks? Instead of demanding monitoring and verification, governments could agree to a set of trade arrangements that happen also to foster reductions in CO2 emissions. The possibilities include changing valuable industry quality ratings to hinge in part on CO2 reductions, lowering tariffs on imports demonstrably produced with low CO2 processes, and offering trade organization membership enhancements linked to independent reporting and inspection.

These are just a few examples of the many solutions people around the world have developed to solve the universal problem of trust. Without such solutions, treaties can make things worse: There is evidence that some treaties do more harm than good by giving countries that sign them good press even as they hide misconduct behind claims of sovereignty. Yet without winsome choices for solving the trust problem, agreements can rightly seem too overbearing and intrusive for countries (and people) to tolerate. Drawing from the vast array of solutions to the trust problem may just help us warm to one another enough to start cooling down the good earth.

Seth Freeman is an assistant clinical professor of Negotiation & Conflict Management at NYU’s Stern School of Business and an adjunct professor at Columbia University. He is working on a book, “Promises: Making Commitments More Reliable in Business and Beyond.”

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