Clues to progress lie in nature of discourse

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Gregg Walker

The delegate from Yemen emphasized the importance of transparency and equity, and said all countries must have a voice. The delegate from Venezuela characterized the agreement as a kind of “new colonial exercise” that marginalized many nations and violated trust. The delegate from Mauritania argued that the most vulnerable countries needed assistance—now. This was discourse in action at a 2010 meeting in Bonn aimed at improving the international climate change negotiation process—and it is discourse itself that interests Gregg Walker. A Research Fellow and OSU professor of speech communication, Walker is devoting his fellowship to a study of “Dominant Discourses of Climate Change: Power and Culture in the Search for Common Ground.”

     While there is little scientific disagreement at this point regarding the evidence of human-caused climate change, there are considerable differences over climate change policy. “In light of the scientific consensus, why has progress during the climate negotiations been slow, particularly on the critical issues of mitigation and adaptation? What are the prospects for consensus on a comprehensive treaty?” Walker suggests that some answers lie in the very nature of climate change discourse. “While there are numerous commentaries to explain the progress—or lack thereof—of the United Nations climate talks, no research has examined the negotiation discourse in depth.” Progress has been made on a number of issues, including clean development mechanisms and forest management, but a final, comprehensive treaty remains elusive despite almost two decades of work. During this period, said Walker, the negotiation process has become increasingly complex and controversial, a pattern he has observed while attending eight UN climate change meetings since 2009.

    Scholar Vivien Burr describes the significance of discourse in this way: “If we accept the view . . . that a multitude of alternative versions of events are potentially available through language, this means that, surrounding any one object, event, person etc. there may be a variety of different discourses, each with a different story to tell about the object in question, a different way of representing it to the world. . . Each discourse claims to say that the object really is, that is, claims to be the truth.” Any public policy may feature multiple discourses, said Walker. “Discourses are bound up with political power, philosophy, and ideology. They compete for dominance and control. . . For example, within the natural resource management arena one discourse may emphasize technical work and economic benefits while another discourse may feature stewardship practices and conservation values.”

     The discourses that climate change conference delegates rely on take varied forms, including formal and informal communication, technical reports, and negotiation texts. In addition to his own observations at the meetings, Walker will draw on conversations with delegates and other observers, published reports, and conference documents. By identifying and analyzing significant climate change discourses, Walker hopes to help the process move forward. “Comprehending the basis for divergence can lead to transformative views that could accommodate important discursive elements such as culture, institutions, and incentives. The result could be convergent discourse that balances power and influence and in doing so generates common ground on which to base policy.”