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Agreeing to agree: Everyone must come to consensus at COP28 climate talks, toughening the process

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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -

It's the killer detail in international climate talks: Consensus.

With nearly 200 nations of different sizes, economies, political systems, resources and needs, they all have to find common ground if they are going to save the one common ground they share -- planet Earth.

Consensus is frequently used to weaken efforts to curb climate change and experts say that's by design, dating back to oil interests and the first United Nations climate negotiations. Some veteran politicians would like to change it, while others embrace it as the only fair way to get things done.

"Whatever decision is taken can only be as strong as what the least ambitious (nations) are prepared to accept," said climate talks historian Joanna Depledge of Cambridge University. "And we've seen that over the years."

U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat from Rhode Island, said the practice of requiring near-unanimity could be fatal: "A small, self-interested minority of states cannot be allowed to block the progress necessary to put our entire planet on a path to climate safety."

Over the next few days consensus will be front and center again as COP28 draws near a close in Dubai. More than 100 nations are pushing for language phasing out fossil fuels eventually, while a few powerful nations -- like oil-producing Saudi Arabia -- are talking about blocking it.

The only previous time United Nations climate even raised the issue of a phase-out of a fossil fuel was two years ago in Glasgow, Scotland. A proposal to phase-out coal, the dirtiest of the fossil fuels, was in the final decision and broadly supported until, at the very last second India, raised an objection. The entire proceedings ground to a halt, negotiators furiously huddled and bargained.

In the end, phase-out became the weaker phase-down. And small island nations, most vulnerable to climate change, blasted the procedure, the compromise and India, but then accepted the wording as the best that could be agreed upon.

At Dubai's conference, both former Ireland president Mary Robinson, now of the retired leaders' group The Elders, and former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, who won a Nobel Peace Prize for his climate advocacy, called on the United Nations to ditch the consensus policy for a three-quarters majority (or more) requirement. It's an idea that could be passed, but has failed when proposed in the past, historian Depledge said.

"We need a reform in the COP process because as long as the system allows a single nation to veto what the rest of the world wants to do, it's not it's not fit for purpose," Gore said in an interview with The Associated Press. "If you have the head of an oil company as the president of the COP in this region and Saudi Arabia objects, I guarantee you he's going to see that hand go up and he's going to say, `Oh, I'm sorry, we don't have permission from Saudi Arabia to do what you want to do.' So they control the agenda here."

Robinson said "the main problem is this need for consensus."

She called it a bad habit and that a benchmark of even 90% agreement would make more sense. Robinson acknowledged the idea is to keep small countries from being overrun by the United States and Chinas of the world, but as a former president of a small country she said it benefits wealthy oil and gas interests. She said it almost sidetracked the landmark 2015 Paris climate agreement.

Proponents of consensus say it's the ultimate in fairness. World Resources Institute climate director Melanie Robinson said it may not work easily, but "what is important is this is a forum where every country has an equal voice and every voice matters."

"The beauty of the UNFCCC is it's a consensus-driven process," said United Arab Emirates chief negotiator Hana al-Hashimi. "Any country can come forward at any point, put forward letters, put forward proposals, and put forward ways forward."

Espen Barth Eide, Foreign Minister of Norway, said sure the consensus process "can be painstakingly slow and frustrating. But the benefit is that when you have a decision, it has been taken by all countries and that gives a lot of authority."

"The very fact that we have a Paris agreement, which is actually remarkably strong on where we're heading, which inspires companies and countries worldwide, is because it's consensus," he said. "So I have to say, I have to defend the consensus principle. This is how the U.N. works, and I think if we move away from that, we might get a speedier and maybe more progressive decision, but it will not have the global buy-in."

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, Democrat from Hawaii, has a more practical reason for liking consensus.

"I don't think we can sort of set up a bunch of new rules to make sure only the good guys are in the room, because it would be a very small room," Schatz said.

The consensus rule was adopted in the first COP in 1995 and it set the tone for what was to come.

"Entrenching consensus was a master stroke of the fossil fuel lobby in the early days, and by that I mean Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, backed by U.S.-based oil lobbyists," Depledge said. "It was OPEC who insisted on consensus -- and because no agreement could be reached on a voting rule, decision making is now indeed by consensus, by default."

A young German environment minister, Angela Merkel, fought hard against it but lost, Gore said.

In 1996, efforts to change it failed. In 2011, Mexico and Papua New Guinea proposed a new way around the consensus rule, but it failed again, Depledge said.

Depledge and Gore said it is possible to change negotiation rules mandating near-unanimity, weirdly enough with less than a consensus. That was the idea Mexico and Papua New Guinea came up with.

The rules allow for nations to adopt new rules to the 1992 Rio treaty that started the climate negotiations with a three-quarters vote. But the catch is it's not a simple vote, Depledge said. It has to be a formal adoption of a treaty amendment by a governmental body, such as Congress or parliament.

The trouble is that most countries are afraid of voting to change consensus rules because they fear that someday they will be on the wrong end of a vote, Depledge said.

"Everybody's nervous about going down that road," Depledge said.

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David Keyton contributed to this report.

Associated Press climate and environmental coverage receives support from several private foundations. 

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