This December brings the crucial twenty-first Conference of the Parties (COP) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)—the international community’s forum for fighting climate change.

There is a tremendous amount of pressure for the conference to deliver a credible and binding international agreement to reduce the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, as the Kyoto Protocol expires (extended from its planned expiration in 2012), and nations try to learn from the perceived disappointment of the Copenhagen conference in 2009.

This pressure would be bad enough on its own. Unfortunately, some analysts are calling for the international community to address issues that are beyond the reasonable remit of the UNFCCC.

Avoiding Mission Creep

In advance of the conference, for example, some have called for building a consensus on addressing climate-change related water security issues. This is a natural inclination, as rising temperatures reduce the snowpacks that feed bodies of water, disrupt seasonal rainfall patterns, and dry-up rivers and lakes. Others, understandably concerned about the plight of refugee populations from the Middle East and North Africa looking desperately for safety in Europe—and the ways in which the situation foreshadows climate change-induced migration—have asked for the Paris COP to develop policy remedies for future “climate refugees.”

While such recommendations are certainly well-intentioned and accurately underscore how climate change can affect a wide variety of natural systems that humans depend on, these analysts have made a critical error in seeking solutions through the UNFCCC process and the Paris COP. The fact is that international diplomats in Paris will have more than their fair share of thorny issues to solve as it is.

Staying On Target for Reducing Greenhouse Gas

It is important to understand that the Paris COP discussions are first and foremost about greenhouse gas emissions and how to prevent their continued concentration in the atmosphere. Building a consensus on doing that as quickly as possible (to prevent crossing the two degree Celsius threshold) has necessitated overcoming long-standing divisions between developed and developing states. This improved dynamic, in and of itself, has required years of careful and sustained diplomacy.

Even with all of that work, difficult questions remain about pacing; sequencing of who does what, when; and how to pay for it all.

With only a few formal negotiating days before the main event kicks off in December, there are vocal concerns about progress made so far. An eighty-three page streamlined draft text for the final agreement was more or less scrapped at Bonn earlier this month, with promises that another, cleaner text is on its way for October.

Noting this is not to indulge in premature negativity. The major decisions were always going to be hashed out in Paris. But it does suggest the level of stage-managing that goes into the process.

Adding contentious issues, like treatment of migrants and refugees or how to fashion and sustain transboundary water agreements (like the one that governs water-sharing between rivals Pakistan and India), would likely derail the process at a time where it is on the cusp of channeling a great deal of ambition into an imperfect but still good climate agreement. Consider an illustrative example: the Indus Waters Treaty, a transboundary agreement governing one river system, is twenty-two pages; the Paris agreement itself is only meant to be twenty pages.

A Menu of Institutional Options

Just because the UNFCCC is not the proper venue does not mean that these issues should not be immediately addressed. It does mean that those concerned about climate change need to identify where the bureaucratic levers are and who needs to be influenced in order to pull them.

Thanks in part to initiatives by the United States and several of the states in the European Union, climate change issues, including those having to do with climate change and international security, have been put on the agendas (either formally or informally) of the United Nations Security Council, the G7, the Shangri-La Dialogue, the Arctic Council, the Halifax Security Forum, and ASEAN, to name just a few. Other multilateral institutions, like the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), World Bank, and International Monetary Fund, are becoming more focused on how their institutional priorities are affected by climate change.

These institutions will not have all of the answers. Not unlike the UNFCCC, they will have to navigate disagreements, some quite fundamental, between their members. But by recognizing there is a constellation of institutions designed to address climate change, activists will not unwittingly saddle one of those organizations with a brief completely out of proportion to its abilities.