Will climate negotiations overcome the curse of unfulfilled expectations at COP21?

30 November, 2015

International negotiations are fundamentally nested games of expectations management. If the objectives are set too high and negotiations then fail to deliver, it would be quite difficult for the relevant parties to re-build momentum for another round (see the case of UNFCCC negotiations after COP15 in Copenhagen). If expectations are set too low, there is the risk that the negotiations will not be taken seriously, either by the parties or the public or by both.

Finding the right balance of expectations during a negotiation process is more an art than a science, not least because, as Kahneman and Tversky (1979) famously demonstrated, people have an irrational tendency to be less willing to gamble with profits than with losses. In other words, we value gains and losses differently and, as such, we prefer to base our decisions on perceived gains rather than perceived losses.

Climate negotiations are no exception to this rule. After twenty years of successive rounds of negotiations, the public is likely to see them more in terms of opportunities lost and not of the gains made. In order to get a sense of what the public expects from climate negotiations at COP21, I use the tool developed by Healey and Ramaswamy from North Caroline State University to conduct sentiment analysis of the three Twitter hashtags suggested by UNFCCC as key frames of social media coverage: #COP21 for the event and venue, #ADP2015 for the negotiation, and #Paris2015 for the outcome. All tweets were collected one day before the official start of the summit, on 29 November 29 2015.

The sentiment map presented in Figure 1 shows where tweets lie in an emotional scatterplot, with pleasure and confidence on its horizontal and vertical axes respectively. The spatial distribution of the tweets summarises the overall public sentiment. As seen in the picture, the vast majority of tweets are optimistic and confident about the work to be done in Paris and the likely outcome of the negotiations. Equally interesting, public expectations are quite moderate in scope, both in terms of the degree of confidence in the outcome and the support for the negotiations. In other words, the public is neither excessively bullish nor outright pessimistic about COP21 and it actually retains a healthy dose of cautious optimism about the results of the negotiations.

Figure 1: COP 21 Sentiment map

Sentiment map

Breaking down the topics about which the public feels in a particular way can be done using a tag cloud. This feature allows us to visualise the most frequently occurring terms in four emotional regions: upset in the upper-left, happy in the upper-right, relaxed in the lower-right, and unhappy in the lower-left. The size of the term is indicative of the frequency with which related tweets occur in the given emotional region. As Figure 2 shows, public expectations are particularly positive about what negotiations should seek to accomplish at COP21. People do clearly expect leaders attending the summit to demonstrate leadership and take firm action against climate change. On the negative side of the spectrum, the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, coupled with the French ban on environmental protests during the summit due to security reasons, cast a regrettable shadow on the ability of the public to connect itself to the negotiation process.

Figure 2:  COP 21 Tag cloud

Tag cloud

Knowing how expectations are framed is also important for understanding who the important actors are and what relationships they bear to one another. The affinity feature visually connects frequent tweets, people, and hashtags and highlights relationships between them. Here, blue and green nodes represent tweets, orange nodes represent people, and yellow nodes represent hashtags. The affinity matrix presented in Figure 3 shows, for instance, that most of the framing in the tweet data set used for this analysis is done at the grassroots level, as evidenced by the predominance of green & blue nodes and activist-related hashtags (#climatemarch, #climatejustice). Institutional accounts like that of UNFCCC or its Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres are minimally influential in framing the online conversation, at least at this stage.

Figure 3: COP 21 Affinity matrix

Affinity matrix

To conclude, pre-COP 21 sentiment analysis shows the online public following Paris negotiations to be cautiously optimistic about the results of the negotiations, legitimately frustrated by the security measures introduced in the aftermath of the Paris terrorist attacks and well connected at the grassroots level. The analysis reflects, of course, one particular framing of the public expectations concerning COP21 so it would be interesting to see how these findings will compare with those at the end of the summit and whether the curse of unfulfilled expectation will finally be broken.


Kahneman, Daniel, and Amos Tversky (1979) ‘Prospect Theory: An Analysis of Decision under Risk’. Econometrica 47 (2) 263-92.

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About the author(s)
Corneliu Bjola
Associate Professor of Diplomatic Studies