SCIENCE

Why Pulling All-Nighters For The U.N. Climate Agreement Is A Bad Idea

Science shows that sleep deprivation can ruin your decision-making.
French Foreign Affairs minister Laurent Fabius works in his office during the COP 21 United Nations Conference on climate cha
French Foreign Affairs minister Laurent Fabius works in his office during the COP 21 United Nations Conference on climate change.

What are the U.N. Climate Chief's biggest concerns gearing up to the creation of the historic climate agreement on Friday? Aside from the challenge of coming up with ambitious yet realistic legally binding guidelines for carbon reductions, and the significant financial concerns associated, she's seriously concerned about sleep deprivation

U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change Chief Christiana Figueres said that her big concern is that the negotiators getting enough rest and staying focused, according to Energy Guardian.  

She's got a very good point.

Like college kids cramming for a final exam, the Paris negotiators are reportedly pulling all-nighters to finalize the climate agreement. The stakes are high, as the talks have been described as the last chance to avert runaway climate change before it's too late. 

While the delegates have spend two weeks crafting a broad skeleton of the deal, a lot of the nitty-gritty details have been left until the eleventh hour -- as is usually the case.

"United Nations negotiators are notorious for leaving everything to the last minute," Coral Davenport wrote for The New York Times last month. "Once the climate talks go into overtime, they do not stop. The diplomats keep negotiating through the night, the morning, the next day, the next night, the next morning until they finish or concede failure."

This is a little disconcerting. No matter how capable the negotiators are or how high their stamina, they're still human beings who require sleep in order to function. 

As science unequivocally shows, sleep deprivation can seriously mess with our ability to stay focused, make decisions, think clearly and remain emotionally even-keeled. 

"Looking at sleep deprivation, we know that it can cause deficits in cognition as well as frustration," Dr. Michael Breus, clinical psychologist and diplomate of the American Board of Sleep Medicine, told The Huffington Post in an email. "In fact there is data to suggest that ethical decision-making is directly affected by sleep deprivation."

A 2011 study from Duke University found that sleep deprivation affects the brain in such a way that we become less sensitive to losses. Brain regions that assess positive outcomes become more active, while parts of the brain that analyze negative outcomes become less active, which can lead to riskier decision-making. Another study found that sleep deprivation impairs our ability to integrate emotion and logic to guide our decision-making. 

When the Challenger space shuttle exploded seconds after its launch in 1986, it was later revealed that key managers involved in the launch had slept just two hours before getting to work at 1 a.m. that day. And prior to the devastating 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, the ship's crew had pulled a 22-hour shift loading the oil onto the ship. A third mate fell asleep at the helm and didn't wake up until it was too late to avert disaster. 

If there's one lesson from these catastrophes that we can apply to the Paris talks, it's that it's probably best to have your mental faculties fully intact when you're trying to draft legislation that could save the world. 

CONVERSATIONS