s disasters proliferate around the globe, rising concerns about climate change have sparked a growing interest in the United Nations (UN) climate negotiations. Since the negotiations began in 1995, scholars, journalists, and negotiators alike have expressed frustration with the slow progress of negotiations and their failure to prevent the problems we are seeing today. The negotiations have also been critiqued for having evolved into mere spectacles or trade shows, where governments, civil society groups, businesses, and even fossil fuel companies attend for two weeks of self-promotion and networking rather than taking serious action on climate change. What are these negotiations? How do we understand these events that seem so complex and multi-dimensional, yet where there is so much at stake for our planet?

It is this set of questions that drives Dr. Naveeda Khan in her recently published book, In Quest of a Shared Planet: Negotiating Climate from the Global South. Khan tackles the annual climate negotiations – known as Conference of the Parties, or COP, meetings – as her object of study, a truly unwieldy object to pin down. She attempts, impressively and nearly always successfully, to capture the several layers of actors and events that take place at the COP meetings. Beyond the negotiating tables, populated with representatives from country delegations, there are observers from diverse areas of civil society (e.g. activists, non-profits, researchers, industry), side event panels, country and thematic pavilions with their own displays and events, press conferences, and much more. In working to explain the breadth and intricacies of the climate negotiations, Khan has taken on a remarkable challenge.

Such a comprehensive examination of the COP meetings fills an unfortunate gap in the literature on the climate negotiations that has existed since they began nearly 30 years ago. While there is plenty of scholarship on the politics, process, and outcomes of the negotiations, no one has yet delved into the events themselves as a way to explain how decision-making happens in these spaces. By examining the COP meetings from multiple angles and through diverse characters in different roles throughout her book, Khan builds the world of the climate negotiations in a way that is both novel and revealing. What she presents is a valuable read for anyone interested in understanding the complexities of global climate policymaking, and an essential primer for anyone preparing to attend or study the COP meetings themselves.  

What is particularly important about Khan’s story is her focus on the power that Global South delegations have to influence the negotiations. Understanding the COP meetings as a site of highly stratified and bureaucratized geopolitics, yet one in which equity was established as a core principle in the institution’s founding document, Khan shows that, while the playing field of the climate negotiations may be uneven, it is more favorable to Global South countries than other global governance arenas. As she outlines in her introduction, her goals for the book are to elucidate the “sprawling process” of the climate negotiations and to demonstrate how Global South countries have a “weak ontology” in the COP meetings. Khan examines how Global South delegations wager to pursue their interests, are steered into significant compromises, and sometimes are affirmed through hard-fought successes. She orients her ethnography of the COP around the delegation and key actors from Bangladesh, the country where she has focused her other streams of research. Taking advantage of the greatest strengths of anthropological writing, Khan allows the reader to learn through her own confusion, exploration, and self-reflection in the field, offering a highly readable analysis throughout. The theory in the book is present but interwoven in the text, supplementing the thick description of the stories she tells without ever becoming burdensome.

In each chapter, Khan approaches the climate negotiations from a new angle, through different actors and components of the COP meetings, and reveals a new layer of her massive field site. In Chapter 1, Khan takes the reader through the broad components of the COP meetings through a detailed narrative of her journey through the five COPs that she studied between 2015 and 2019. A throughline in this chapter is established in the description of her annual attempt to pin down Asad, an activist, whose charismatic speech at COP 21 in 2015 caught Khan’s attention as he accused Global North countries of not paying their due for climate change and advocated for climate justice for the Global South. Through the search for Asad, the reader learns about the various civil society spaces in the COP meetings, the frustrations of overly planned and diplomatic conversations in negotiating rooms, the key issues on the table each year, and the importance of the physical space and place of the meetings (the host city for the COPs changes annually).

In Chapter 2, Khan introduces the Bangladeshi delegation as her anchor for the rest of the book. She explains how Bangladesh, with its own vulnerabilities to climate change and limited capacity to address the problem on its own, has no choice but to participate in the COP meetings, but over time has worked to take the lead with strong positions in the negotiations. In contextualizing Bangladesh, Khan explains the histories of the country coordinating groups that exist within the COPs, including those in which Bangladesh is a member such as the Least Developed Countries (LDC) Group and the Climate Vulnerable Forum. She also introduces key Bangladeshi negotiators, Zia bhai, Shawkat bhai, and Dr. Nurul Quadir, whose long engagement in the negotiations has made them effective and influential negotiators for the Global South. By the end of the chapter it is clear how a humble country like Bangladesh can come to shape this global process.

Chapter 3 examines the complexities of the position of negotiators – those who speak on behalf of national delegations in the negotiating rooms. Using three negotiators from the LDC group as illustrative examples, Khan explores the idea of “negotiations as vocation” and describes how one comes to find themselves holding such a position. The greater contribution of the chapter, however, is Khan’s thorough assessment of the institutional knowledge that negotiators must acquire when they first attend COP meetings. She explains the massive learning curve that new negotiators must overcome, as well as the training initiatives for negotiators from the Global South (such as the European Capacity Building Initiative) that help get them up to speed. Understanding the nuances of negotiation, the subtleties of obstructive strategies, and the role of language become crucial for these negotiators to participate effectively.

Khan shifts her narrative in Chapter 4, moving from the official components of the COP to a greater focus on the people who are unofficially shaping the negotiations through their own individual commitments. She follows five of these individuals: former member of the institution’s Secretariat Richard Kinley, Bangladeshi scientist and advocate Dr. Saleemul Huq, American Quaker and spiritual guide Lindsey Fielder, Filipina activist Telet Nera-Lauron, and French Attorney Sebastien Dyuck. Through each of their stories about their own engagement in the COP meetings and their philosophies for effecting positive change in the process, Khan shows how the people in spaces “in between” can be just as influential as those at the negotiating table. This chapter makes clear that there is much more going on in the context of the COP than what can be seen in meetings. People with the passion and drive to advise, connect, and support from behind-the-scenes can play an indispensable role in moving the process forward.

In Chapter 5, Khan moves to a close reading of the 2015 Paris Agreement, the latest global treaty on climate change. Taking the reader through the Agreement’s many articles and turns of phrase, she situates the text in the circumstances in which it was produced. In doing so, she speaks to the importance of context on outcome. Comparing the Paris Agreement to the earlier Kyoto Protocol, Khan also highlights the strangeness of the Agreement in that its success is contingent upon countries following through with their commitments, and therefore is based on trust and transparency between nations.

Chapter 6 then works to explain one outcome of negotiations – the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) that are imperative to the working of the Paris Agreement – from three different perspectives: official documents, national delegations, and activists. Khan first provides a thorough summary of the process through which the NDCs emerged as a part of the Paris Agreement and how their details were determined in the years after through negotiations on the “Paris Rulebook.” She then draws on her observations of negotiating meetings to trace the diplomatic statements made by different countries’ to express their perspectives on how the NDC texts should develop. This is followed by an interpretation of these statements from activist groups, who expressed their own criticisms of the politics behind country positions, including some countries’ work to obstruct texts that would be favorable to the Global South. Finally, Khan turns to Zia bhai, Bangladeshi negotiator on the NDCs, for interpretation of the negotiations. The chapter ends with her surprise to learn that he puts little weight on the fact that the Global South’s priorities were not achieved in the NDC negotiations, because they had other wins elsewhere and negotiations would continue.

In her last empirical chapter, Chapter 7, Khan takes on the issue of “loss and damage,” a highly contentious topic in the climate negotiations that has been championed by countries in the Global South, particularly small island states and LDCs. She deconstructs the multiple vectors of loss and damage to demonstrate how this issue cuts to incalculable loss as the devastating core of climate policymaking that many delegations seek to avoid. Analyzing loss and damage as human cost, as economic cost, as a clearinghouse for information, as liability and compensation, as an issue of attribution, and as a door to mourning, Khan traces the history of the issue in the negotiations. In each section, the reader comes to understand the close ties between loss and damage and climate justice, and why this issue has produced a standoff (and potentially stalemate) between Global North and South that others have not.

As these chapter summaries suggest, the book covers a lot of ground and, at times, is a lot to take in. The level of detail Khan provides in explaining not only the event of the COPs, but the formal and informal routes by which individuals engage in the process, how to understand the position of geopolitically marginalized countries in the Global South, and the specifics of texts, procedures, and historical developments in negotiations is extensive. She covers so much ground that even an experienced COP attendee, like myself, can get slightly lost in the vast terrain of puzzle pieces that she works to put together through the varied chapters. But that is also the nature of the climate negotiations. Some components are boring and tedious, with required knowledge of long histories of how documents have developed and issues have emerged. Others are exciting, as representatives from civil society and marginalized nations join together to fight for progressive change and call out those obstructing climate action. What Khan accomplishes in this book is an accurate depiction of a multi-dimensional and chaotic space where global decisions are ultimately made.

Besides effectively capturing the enormity of the COP, Khan takes a novel approach to delineating the position of the Global South in the climate negotiations. While others have focused on these countries’ “soft power” in the negotiations, their “moral authority,” or how their consent in negotiations is inevitably manipulated and manufactured by Global North countries, Khan shows that the story is actually much more complex. Through her analysis, she demonstrates how diverse Global South actors, from negotiators to activists to experts, influence global climate policy. It is only through Khan’s comprehensive perspective on the climate negotiations that the multiple ways that Global South actors engage in the process can be captured. Even more importantly, she makes it clear that the Global South is not a homogenous group. Country representatives disagree and have different theories of change regarding how to approach the negotiations and how to pursue diverging ideas about progress. Such South-South relationships are often shallow or contrived based on circumstance.

Ultimately, Khan provides an explanation for why the UN climate negotiations continue after 30 years of mostly failure to adequately address the problem of climate change. She shows why motivated individuals keep engaging and why countries like Bangladesh keep taking an active seat at the table. It is clear through her ethnography that there is something happening at the negotiations, some “what if” that Khan implores the reader to consider in the book’s conclusion. The COPs should not be written off either as arenas of formative geopolitics or as sites for meaningful scholarly inquiry. As the negotiations process inevitably goes forward, In Quest of a Shared Planet will prove a valuable guidebook for anyone working to understand the why and the how of global climate policymaking.

Danielle Falzon is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Rutgers University. Her work examines power in climate change decision-making, in particular how inequalities are institutionalized into decision-making organizations. Her research has focused on the dynamics between countries in the UN climate negotiations, as well as on adaptation in Bangladesh.