This post is provided by our “guest blogger” Elke Schüßler. Elke Schüßler is postdoctoral fellow at the Department of Management at Freie Universität Berlin.

The 17th climate summit in Durban has just concluded and the target of developing binding decisions for greenhouse gas emission caps post-2012, when the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol – the “only game in town”, as it is often called inside the climate policy community – will end, has moved further afar. The main outcome of a uniquely long and strenuous negotiation process in this South African city was to postpone the development of such a treaty to 2015.

In a previous blog entry, Leonhard Dobusch and I have analyzed the role of music industry conferences as so-called “field configuring events” and the role they play in the contestation and possibly innovation of copyright regulation. Together with Bettina Wittneben (WiSE Institute) and Charles-Clemens Rüling (Grenoble Ecole de Management), I am conducting a similar analysis of the role of climate summits in the field of international climate change policy.

This field was established by the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, and has since been marked by a series of international policy conferences carrying forward the United Nation’s climate change negotiation process: the annual ‘Conference of the Parties’ (COP) together with a series of mid-year ‘Meetings of the Subsidiary Bodies’ (SB) held in the context of the United Nation’s Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Recent research has underlined the role of international conferences as “catalysts of change, especially as organizations and governments struggle to develop global solutions to complex problems” (Hardy & Maguire, 2010: 1358).

In our analysis of COP summits since the year 2000, we find these events increasingly contribute to maintaining the field of international climate change policy – possibly at the expense of the momentum needed to advance institutional change. While early climate summits, most notably COP 3 in Kyoto, have created important field-wide institutions such as the carbon-emission trading scheme, recent COPs, probably most remembered the much-hyped COP 15 in Copenhagen in 2009, are characterized by the absence of any meaningful policy agreements. The focus rather seems to have shifted towards managing the more technical issues of the process of international policy making itself: postponing decisions, developing roadmaps, and scheduling further events (cf. the ZEIT-article “Aufschub mit Ansage”, 28.11.2011).

Nonetheless, the COPs attract a large number of participants each year (see the UNFCCC website for a breakdown of participation), many of which come from non-governmental “observer organizations”. For those actors, the COPs play an important role in that they provide a fixed reference point towards which their otherwise dispersed and unconnected activities are directed and from which new activities result (Figure 1). We argue that recurrent events such as the COPs lead to field-wide templates for legitimate forms of action and provide temporal routines, while local-level outcomes include an actor-specific opportunity structure and resource space that depends on networks and relationships formed at events, as well as on individual actors’ understanding of field-level issues. Event outcomes at both levels influence actors’ organizing and strategic positioning activities during both the follow-up of the COPs and the next run-up stages.

A cyclical process of field maintenance through recurrent events (Schüßler et al., 2011)

The COPs thus seem to play a more field-maintaining rather than a field-configuring role over time. However, effective field maintenance also implies the need to provide the field with opportunities for change and to balance continuity and momentum. As Durban has shown again, the COPs, organized by the UNFCCC Secretariat, seem to have a bias for the former, so that the actors most in need of change seek alternative fora such as the Durban Group for Climate Justice or the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth.

While focusing on the process of international climate change policy is important, the UNFCCC Secretariat should, despite all the challenges inherent in international diplomacy, not forget about the content if it wants to maintain its strong “field mandate” (Lampel and Meyer, 2008), i.e. on facilitating the development of binding solutions that make our planet a more climate-friendly place.


Hardy, C., & Maguire, S. (2010). Discourse, field-configuring events, and change in organizations and institutional fields: Narratives of DDT and the Stockholm Convention. Academy of Management Journal, 53(6): 1365-1392

Lampel, J., & Meyer, A.D. 2008. Guest editors’ introduction: Field-configuring events as structuring mechanisms: How conferences, ceremonies, and trade shows constitute new technologies, industries, and markets. Journal of Management Studies, 45(6): 1025-1035.

Schüßler, E., Rüling, C.-C., & Wittneben, B.F. 2011. Field Maintaining Events: The Role of Conferences in Structuring the Field of Climate Policy. Paper presented at the Academy of Management Annual Meeting, San Antonio, 12.-16. August.