Meet Laurent Fabius, Non-Stop Climate Negotiations Gangster
On day nine of the now-completed Paris climate talks, a negotiator from the small island nation of East Timor made a modest proposal: If the climate deal was signed, he would nominate Laurent Fabius for the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize. The East Timoran diplomat was half-joking, but not at the French foreign minister’s expense. As president of this high level UN meeting, Fabius was responsible for translating 195 nations worth of desires, disputes, and compromises into a document to save civilization from climate change.
And, spoiler: He pulled it off.
But back to then, two days before the Friday deadline (which had to be extended through Saturday), Fabius was holding a meeting so countries could comment publicly on a draft of the document. The meeting was stereotypically bureaucratic, each speaker identified only by a country placard in front of them. It was a slog, a world tour through thousands of words of disputed text. Yet nearly every speaker managed to thank the French foreign minister, or his team, in their remarks.
South Africa: “I am taking floor on behalf of the group of 77 plus China. The group wishes to thank the COP presidency, ministerial, and the secretariat for work so far. But also wish to advocate for a fairer version of draft…”
Switzerland: “On behalf of Environmental Integrity Group, we would like to thank the COP presidency for all efforts producing text and ably guiding us through this process. However, numerous options need to be resolved…”
Australia: “As the representative of the Umbrella group, we would like to thank the presidency for its work. However, significant work remains…”
It went on like that for another 60 speakers. If you think all that politeness was merely part of parliamentary procedure, well, you are partly right. But if you think polite parliamentary procedure typically endures after nine days of climate negotiations, you are wrong. More typically, the disputes lead to arguments, angry accusations, and walk-outs. But not this time.
The disputes—the ones in the past, and the ones countries had this time in Paris—are not trivial. Some small, low-lying island nations are already being washed away by higher seas and worse storms. For others, the existential threats are economic (if you are a country anchored by oil development), or political (if, hypothetically, you come from a country where one of two political parties, as a matter of policy, didn’t believe in climate change). All on top of the neverending drama of geopolitics.
But at COP21, the atmosphere was strangely convivial. Almost absurdly so. And it wasn’t just the crepes. “The French are really focusing on framing the document on what comes out of the negotiations,” says Aimee Barnes, an administrator with California’s EPA, and a former climate negotiator. That might sound straightforward, but pooling 195 competing interests is incredibly difficult. It’s why it’s taken 21 years of climate meetings to come up with a document that works.
In the draft Paris document, square brackets surrounded disputed segments of text. A month before the talks began, the working draft had over 1,600 bracketed items. By the end of the first week, it was down to 916. October 9th’s draft had just 361.
Despite the steady decline in brackets, a lot of journalists, activists, and observers noted that the same key arguments kept popping up—Who will pay for climate change’s effects? Who will receive money? How often will countries monitor their emissions, and who will they report to? How ambitious will this document be?
The climate deal rode on Fabius’ ability to interpret these negotiations. Sometimes an unbracketed part from a previous draft would be put in brackets in the next, as a country or coalition would lodge its complaint after a new text was unveiled. If anything were to come out of the Paris meeting, it would be by unanimous decision. Laurent Fabius literally had to please everybody.
Historically, Fabius wasn’t been so good at that. For one thing, he’s rich, which is a liability as a Socialist party member in proletariat Paris. In 2013 he disclosed millions in assets, three homes, and a stake in a large art auction house. Then there’s his son Thomas. Gambling in Vegas on the night his father was sworn in as foreign minister in 2013, Thomas racked up a $3.5 million debt. Then he skipped town. Then he had an arrest warrant.
In fact, Fabius’ contentious history goes back decades. In 1984, he was a rising star, appointed prime minister by then-president François Mitterrand. At 37, he was the 5th Republic’s youngest prime minister, and had spent the prior six years rising through the ranks of national politics, first as an assemblyman, then Minister of Finance, and Minister of Industry.
Then 1985 happened. First came the Rainbow Warrior, a Greenpeace ship en route to protest French nuclear testing in the South Pacific, anchored in New Zealand. French agents sunk it, killing one person. Prime Minister Fabius initially denied France’s involvement, but eventually ‘fessed up on behalf of the government. As he famously said to the journalists gathered in his office, “The truth is cruel.”
That same year a political dispute put him at odds with Mitterrand, and by extension the rest of the Socialist Party. He was eventually ousted as prime minister in 1986, after an economic downturn.
Fabius spent the next few decades drifting from one political post to another. Still, he has never fully regained his position with the public. “He is appreciated as smart,” says Pascal Canfin, France’s minister of development from 2012 to 2014. “But people don’t vote for him.”
In 2006, Fabius got last place in a Socialist party primary election. In a more recent poll, French citizens were asked who they saw as the person most embodying COP 21. Only 7 percent of respondents voted for Fabius.
In person, Fabius has charisma, but unlike, say, current French President François Hollande—a pretty funny guy—Fabius is quieter, more temperate. He is noticeably intelligent, and is described as an active listener. Brought up in a family of art collectors, and at one point a literature student, he’s known to flavor meetings with morsels from relevant historians, philosophers, and writers.
In his career, he has held five ministerial positions in the French government, served on the European Parliament, been a councillor at four bureaucratic levels, an assemblyman, and leader of the Socialist Party. He may not be France’s most popular politician, but he is its most experienced, says Canfin.
But in 2012, he had a glaring hole in his resumé: Fabius knew nothing about climate policy. This was important, because that year, countries were bidding on who would host COP21. Or rather, they were not bidding. Everyone knew COP21 would be huge, and nobody wanted to be on the hook after the disastrous Copenhagen talks. “People tend to think of the negotiations like there’s this just this big meeting taking place somewhere in the world, and each one is the last opportunity for a climate deal,” says Barnes. “In reality, it’s an ongoing process.”
In that sense, a failed climate meeting might not mean the end of the world—maybe just a hastening of it—but lots of lost progress towards a deal. It also looks bad on the host country. When Copenhagen tanked, which was largely perceived as the Danes’ fault, due to their heavy-handedness, four years of negotiations went down with it.
Fabius didn’t want that for France, and opposed hosting. But he was overruled, partly because without COP21, President Hollande’s five-year presidential term would expire without having hosted any large, international, diplomatic events. Also, France’s Green Party was lobbying for the gig, and called in some political favors to overrule Fabius’ and others’ objections.
Eventually Fabius realized that if France was hosting COP21, it would be his job to preside over it. “I saw a profound transformation, from him seeing the meeting as too complicated to figure out, to something he resolved to chair, win, and use to define his political life,” says Canfin.
Fabius began holding regular staff meetings to familiarize himself with the science, economics, and politics of climate change. He started visiting his counterparts in other countries, to listen and learn what other countries wanted out of a deal. “I don’t know how many bilateral meetings he went to, but it was a crazy amount,” says Canfin. The weekend following the November 13 terrorist attacks in Paris, Fabius visited South Africa, India, and Brazil.
That preparation, combined with his decades of political experience, paid off. During the first week of the Paris talks, lower level negotiators updated a draft brought in from earlier negotiations. Fabius and his team fashioned that into a monstrous, bracket-laden, working Paris document. Week two brought in the big dogs, the top level ministers. Fabius suggested working groups to focus on various minutiae—hours of meetings filled with mundane language, power point presentations, and additions, red lines, and of course, brackets. As things progressed, the committees reported to Fabius’ team, who spent sleepless nights massaging those into new drafts. All while the clock clucked.
On December 12, the 21st Conference of Parties signed the Paris document. Diplomatically, that in itself is a huge success. It’s been fifty years since scientists told a US president about the phenomena, and 21 since the first UN climate change meeting in Kyoto.
But will the treaty work? That’ll take time to answer—time to see if the document sends the right signals to financial markets, if the geopolitical equivalent of peer pressure is enough to get countries to comply, if getting global temperatures below 2 degrees C and as near as possible to 1.5 degrees C is a feasible goal, if the rich countries of the world make good on their promise to deliver $100 billion in climate relief, mitigation, and adaptation to the developing world by 2020. So many ifs, not enough hindsight.
Walking around Paris, you see a lot of statues. People who won wars, built alliances, created masterpieces. If that hindsight pans out, perhaps one day there will be a statue for the man who helped the world save itself. Then again, a Nobel Prize isn’t a bad start.
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