La Vie à Genève: Big Money, Big Players, and Big Mountains

Guest student blogger: James Hansen (MESM 2016)

This may not come as a complete surprise to those who have worked in governance, but the process of implementing international agreements by consensus can be slow.  Maddeningly slow, like molasses in Siberia. While I acknowledge that it is no small task to get representatives from every corner of the globe to agree on “technical details” (albeit details that can bolster or cripple an economy with the scribble of a pen), before this summer I was frustrated with the apparent lack of progress towards a comprehensive international climate change agreement.  But on the front lines in Geneva, I have seen another side of the coin. Here, the race towards COP 21 in December is in full swing with negotiations, dialogues, and research all moving a mile a minute.

My esteemed status as a “Junior Associate” at the International Center for Trade and Sustainable Development (ICTSD) recently allowed me access to a meeting within the World Trade Organization (WTO). Being inside the WTO headquarters is like being in the Four Seasons Hotel, if the Four Seasons doubled as Grand Central Station. The building and the grounds are palatial to say the least, and a custom Italian suit is the norm (although traditional dress anywhere from the Andes to the Sahara is not uncommon). I watch as people from 197 United Nations countries pour in and out of grand meeting chambers, and the scene is reminiscent of a colony of ants. At first it is difficult to perceive the interconnection between every blur of a person rushing by, but this ant colony of economists and trade experts is quite representative of international governance as a whole.  The streams of delegates, experts, and capital who crisscross in a torrent of negotiations are what make international governance work.

However, the WTO plays only a relatively small role in international climate change negotiations. The cooperative work of NGOs, experts, policy makers, and financiers in high level dialogues and publications is of the utmost importance. These meetings of the brightest minds and deepest pockets happen weekly here in Geneva and the continual pace of preparation for these events is stunning. The success of climate negotiations at COP 21 in Paris hinges on these tireless efforts to educate big international players about the mutually beneficial connection between successful climate policy and a growing economy.

Understandably this can get overwhelming, so weekend trips to the Alps are a must!


James Hansen is an expected MESM 2016, specializing in Climate and Energy. He is interning this summer at the International Center for Trade and Sustainable Development in Geneva, Switzerland. He works within the Global Platform on trade issues related to climate change and renewable energy, such as trade barriers and trade remedies for renewable energy technology.

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