Here is Guest Author Thom Mitchell’s latest dispatch from Paris:
Bad coffee and the smell of rats, but looks like progress?
Dear NM Insider,
On Monday, 150 world leaders issued forth to the Paris climate talks with grandiose statements about saving the planet. Most have left, because, you know, saving the planet is a part-time job.
The negotiators tasked with giving affect to their words are now pouring over every word of every letter of what is currently a 50-page draft of the new international agreement on climate change. When the 11 December deadline for the end of negotiations comes, it will set out exactly how the world-saving will, or perhaps won’t, be done.
At the time of writing – the first Thursday night of the two week summit – it’s still half-filled with the infamous [square brackets] which indicate the wording still to be agreed on. They stand in for the sleepless nights that have already started in earnest. (I saw a guy literally sleeping standing up on the train back to Paris city centre at 6pm today).
It’s a pity French coffee is so bad.
Negotiators, non-governmental observers, and a serious media scrum are spinning off into all manner of informal meetings, often in the pricey cafeterias making a killing out of impending global disaster, to discuss the square brackets and what they mean for the world’s chances of avoiding dangerous climate change, and the interests and agendas of individual nations.
The 18-hectare conference centre where the negotiating’s being done is a total circus. So it’s fitting that a boulevard which separates two rows of massive warehouses at the site in Le Bourget, on Paris’ outer fringe, is lined with kitsch plastic animals, translucent and standing in for the one’s whose future is being determined.
Ditto for the skeletal trees just outside the airport-security entrance, which watch over hundreds of busloads of people ferrying in and out of the main site each day, and to and from the train station or various side events.
An overbearing sense of artifice permeates the whole show, as different countries, not-for-profits, academics and journalists scurry through the melee. There are people in elaborate turbans, saris, suits, and pāreus; speaking French, English, and dozens of other languages, and rushing off to meetings in side rooms, plenaries and cafe corners.
Some of them, like the Pacific Islander delegates, are trying to save their people. Others, rather selfishly, their economies. But the obvious disparity in negotiating power is largely hushed up, and for countries which are both poor and large emitters of carbon, the situation is a much more complex and delicate balancing act.
Because the process is run by consensus, every country, in a way, has the ability to bugger it up by refusing to sign on to the final text. But in these early stages people are treading carefully. The problem with, say, Pacific Islanders kicking up a stink about the fact that what’s being negotiated will sink many of their homes, is that for them any deal is better than none at all. And the problem with India demanding an ambitious deal which would save them huge money on their adaptation bill, is they have domestic demands to provide ‘electricity to all’ the 300 million without it by 2030.
At this stage, as the 196 countries involved work collaboratively on the climate pact, delegates are feeling out others’ negotiating positions, and getting ready for the political crunch that comes in the second week. But hopes are genuinely high that the talks will produce a document coherent, ambitious, and credible enough to kickstart the shift towards a lower carbon world.
The focus is largely on process – we know we’re not going to get even to a two degree goal, inadequate though the science tells us that is – so there’s a huge emphasis on setting up a system that will ratchet up over time, and leave the door open to greater ambition later.
But it could easily be another furphy.
Earlier today, renowned climate scientist and former head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, James Hansen (pictured below), told me he’d come to his first ever climate talks because he smelt a rat.
He said he thought governments would come to the conference, and leave claiming they’d made serious progress. They’ve done it plenty of times before, but some estimates say emissions are up by more than 60 per cent since the first major climate conference.
“Unlike the ozone problem where the governments actually took some actions to solve the problem, in the case of the climate problem, they’re not taking action,” he said. “Young people and future generations are screwed if we stay on that path, [but] trying to communicate against this headwind of fossil fuel propaganda is very difficult.”
There will be an update on key bones of contention in the morning, and it should become a fair bit clearer how things are progressing. But history tells us that in spite of all the careful planning and soaring rhetoric, the real decisions will be made in a schism towards the end of the second week.
I’ll keep you posted.