Good Grammar: English as the Default in Climate Negotiations

By Student Delegate Lucas Waggoner 

The legal world is a linguistic minefield. You can achieve success or lose everything over the placement of a single comma. Professionals are hired to twist and manipulate the language to achieve desired outcomes.

This becomes infinitely more complex once legal discussions enter the international realm—particularly for international climate negotiations. Yale Law professor Susan Biniaz has written about how lawyers use commas to radically shift the meaning of the text in climate agreements. At the UNFCCC, lawyers changed the position of a comma to appease opposing parties. Language that once read that Parties “have a right to, and should promote, sustainable development” became the Parties “have a right to, and should, promote sustainable development.” Instead of giving Parties a right to sustainable development, the language instead gave Parties a “right to promote sustainable development.”

At the yearly Conference of the Parties (COP), delegates from around the world meet to carry out these kinds of textual negotiations. COP is a fast-paced international climate negotiation. The Parties have to negotiate climate treaties together in a matter of days. That would be complex enough on its own. However, to complicate things further, all negotiations are done in one language: English.

English is only the third-most spoken language in the world. Large portions of the world do not speak English. This puts countless parties at a disadvantage at COP. Learning another language is one thing. Being able to use a second or third language to negotiate technical linguistic elements with very little time is completely different. This becomes especially difficult when the subject being argued in a text contains nuances that are intentionally cryptic, in order to gatekeep those who lack complete expertise in the language. This kind of gatekeeping creates a clear imbalance between parties. So far, nothing has been done to mitigate this problem.

Before problems can be resolved, they must be recognized first. Angelique Pouponneau, the CEO of the climate finance nonprofit SeyCCAT in Seychelles, has discussed this issue. She explains that “there’s actually…no or limited literature on language barriers in international diplomacy.” The issue is ignored in both political and academic discourse about international climate agreements. As a result, the issue persists. Because the discourse is nonexistent, the majority of people do not see the problems the language barriers present. Angelique explains that perceptions must change before the language barriers can be properly handled.AP

The discourse matters. Until people are made aware of the issue, this serious disadvantage will continue impeding progress. The UN both possesses and provides the resources to host international discussions, taking into account the vast number of different languages at play. They provide translators and make accommodations so that nations are not inherently operating from a disadvantage. However, these kinds of resources can be cost prohibitive, especially with so many different nations and languages involved.

Those kinds of resources would be invaluable to the negotiations at COP. However, people need to publicly acknowledge the issue before the UN or some other organization can begin providing the resources needed to level the playing field.

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