So. It’s Thursday. How Are Those Climate Talks Going?
LE BOURGET, France — Glasses hanging off his nose, bald head gleaming under the stage lights, two hours late, the French minister delivered the latest draft of the Paris climate agreement to the gathered UN delegation. It was a leaner document than the one the delegates had spent the past three days debating: fewer words, fewer pages, fewer disputed sections of text. But as he neared the end of his brief, Laurent Fabius peered over his glasses and reminded everybody, “Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.”
Which may seem confusing—anxiety-making, even—given that less than 60 hours after those words left his mouth (about 3:15pm, December 9) was the Paris climate talks’ supposed deadline (midnight, December 11). These UN negotiators have been at hammering at this deal for a week and a half; you think they’d be converging in on some kind of deal. Apocalypse waits for no one, guys.
So…yes and no. On paper, this draft looks a lot better than the last. Brackets—indicating wording that’s still in play—surround just 361 items, down from 916. In his speech, Fabius said that the majority of these brackets address just a few contentious areas, like who should help pay for global warming’s effects, and how ambitious does everyone want this agreement to be.
Watching the delegates frame their support and disdain for this or that paragraph, sentence, or phrase is like getting a window into their national soul. Take China. A huge polluter, but newly prosperous. It supports an ambitious deal in terms of emissions cuts, but wants the world to remember that places like the US and EU are responsible for most of the carbon molecules already in the atmosphere; they should pay for the way those molecules affect the rest of the globe.
The US frames its position on the “who should pay” issue in terms of personal responsibility. Sure, it and other developed nations have some historical responsibility, but believes newly rich countries should also contribute. After all, as Secretary of State John Kerry pointed out, “Climate change is the result of practices from the industrial revolution that the rest of the world adopted.”
Barbados wants everyone else to keep their eyes on the prize. To a 166 square mile Caribbean island already threatened by effects like sea level rise, ambitious emissions cuts are the most important thing about the Paris document. In the words of its negotiator: “We will not sign off on any agreement that means a certain extinction of our people.”
All this diplomacy is fascinating up close, but absolutely frustrating if you back away even an inch. Even if you take France’s Fabius at his word that the talks are moving along, those movements appear to be measured in millimeters. Veteran environmental reporter Seth Borenstein couldn’t hide his annoyance when he asked, to an NGO leader discussing her analysis of the revised draft, “What actually has been solved that’s big in this?”
He has a point. Because really, it’s not the number of brackets that’s important, it’s what those brackets contain. And the really crucial brackets—the ones that determine who pays, who gets their emissions monitored, how often should everyone ratchet up their cuts—aren’t much less mushy than they were a week and a half ago, at the beginning of COP21. Given how hard it is to get traction amid all those brackets, even insiders are leery of meeting Friday’s deadline. “We all might benefit by seeing a clean text,” said the Swiss delegate.
France’s Fabius controls the pace here. As COP21 president, he is in charge of taking all the other countries’ concerns and compromises into consideration, and putting them into the document. And at least on that front, there are hopeful signs. Without exception, other delegates always begin their speeches by praising France’s work. That’s not just diplomatic politeness. A lot of people around here note that the atmosphere is very different from past climate negotiations.
So. One day from now, there could very well be a climate deal. Perhaps one where the world cuts the coal, splits the tab, and saves Barbados from extinction. Then again, blame and bitterness might be the only things to come out of Paris. Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. In plus-or-minus 24 hours, that’ll mean…something.
LE BOURGET, France — When one talks about being at the Paris climate negotiations, what one is really talking about are a half-dozen warehouses. Each is filled with artificially warmed air, thousands of people, and lots of booths, displays, flatscreen TVs, partitioned meeting rooms, and cafés. Finding a real life negotiation is actually kind of hard.
For one thing, this place is big. Added up, the Le Bourget convention halls have around 25 acres of explorable floorspace. Thing two, nothing on the schedule is actually labeled “negotiation.” Instead, it requires that you decipher descriptions like “CMP contact group on issues relating to joint implementation.”
I found my first negotiations by mistake. Compared to most of the level of activity elsewhere, Hall 6 has the atmosphere of hospital lobby minus the morbidity. People shuffle and stare at big photographs. Take a turn down a long hallway, and doors left ajar mostly give glimpses of empty white tables, sterilized of anything snoopworthy. Continue down the hallway, though, and closed doors lead into larger rooms painted with huge letters spelling out words like La Loire and La Siene. The last room is Le Maroni, and its door was hidden behind a sizable bustle of people.
And behind them, two pairs of security guards—one pair in matching police baby blues, and the other wearing suits—who, upon seeing the orange and black “PRESS” label on my badge, did not let me inside.
That’s how I figured out how to find negotiations on the schedule: Look for the events that do not invite media.
Camped out in a chair across from the door, the constant ingress and egress of aides gave me a stop motion view inside. Mostly, this was the Bahraini negotiator rubbing her forehead, squeezing the bridge of her nose, and gazing tiredly at what I assume were other negotiators.
A Senegalese negotiator was half-sitting, half-laying in the chair beside me. “In there, they are discussing support,” she told me. “Means of implementation for finance, technology transfer, capacity building.” What’s that mean?
The Group of 77 are actually 134 in number, all of them developing nations. Their combined goal at COP 21 is convincing rich countries to commit aid—in the form of money, sustainable energy tech, and infrastructure—so they can build their economies without using fossil fuels. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi put the price tag at $100 million dollars. A lot of developed countries (the US, Japan, most of Europe) made pledges on day 1, but the numbers (and the paperwork to support them) don’t yet add up.
In essence, that room was filled with many poor countries trying to convince a few rich countries to part with some fraction of money. Which explains a lot about the few negotiators I’ve met: the forehead-rubbing, the long blinks, and the labored looks of annoyance when asked how things are going.