Plenty has been written about the outcome of the Paris climate talks this past December, so I’m going to skip that part. The Cliffs Notes version: it wasn’t a total disaster, but rich countries are – for the most part – continuing to screw over poor countries.
Instead of focusing on the substance of the talks, I’m going to talk about something I find much more interesting: how these things work at a human level. No fluff, no fanfare, just the personal perspective of somebody who has been going to these things for the past 9 years.
A LITTLE BACKGROUND
Let’s start with the basics. For the past 21 years governments have been meeting annually (usually in December) for something called the Conference of the Parties (COP). It’s essentially a massive climate summit hosted by the United Nations with representatives for nearly every country in attendance.
This process started after the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was created in 1992 at the Rio Earth Summit. Between then and now there have been two globally significant moments. The first was in 1999 when the Kyoto Protocol was created as a way to give ‘teeth’ to the UNFCCC. Sadly, despite Al Gore’s best efforts, it got 0 votes in the US Senate. Without the US on board, the protocol never took off in the way many hoped it would.
To rectify this, a process was established in 2007 to create new ‘Long-term Cooperative Action’ that would set us on a course to ‘solve’ climate change. The culmination of this process was in Copenhagen in 2009 – and it failed miserably. Instead of a robust agreement, there was a weak ‘accord’ put forward by the US and China in the final hours of the talks. It was meant to salvage a deal, but instead backfired and caused further divisions between countries.
For years afterward the talks were largely in cleanup mode, attempting to learn from the mistakes of the past and find a way to get some sort of international agreement on the books, regardless of the substance.
THE SAME PLAYERS
Now that you’re caught up we can get to the nitty-gritty – all the little things that are much more important than they appear.
First off, it’s important to know that these ‘summit level’ talks (meaning they involve the highest level diplomats) happen annually, but in-between there are multiple meetings called ‘intersessionals’ that are meant to pave the way for action at the COP. And year after year, it’s the same exact people at the negotiating table. Some have literally been around for 20 years – or 40 in the case of Michael Zammit Cutajar. Even the folks working for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) remain largely the same from one year to the next.
In some ways this is great, it means people are able to establish rapport with each other. But it also means there are long-festering issues that have never been resolved because people are entrenched in their positions. In Copenhagen, things got so bad during the final hours that Claudia Salerno, the Venezuelan negotiator at odds with the US, literally cut her hand banging the table in an attempt to speak.
The result of this entrenchment is an absolutely glacial pace. Not helping matters is the fact that the talks are a consensus-based process, so everybody needs to agree on everything.
THE MOST IMPORTANT ACRONYM
What the generic media reports often miss when reporting on these conferences are the code words and longstanding disagreements wrapped up in acronyms. At the top of the list is something known as ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ or CBDR. More recently it has been referred to as ‘CBDR and respective capabilities, in light of different national circumstances’.
Yeah, if that makes your head hurt I’m right there with you. It’s not a phrase that means much in normal english. But CBDR is important because it’s one of the biggest fault lines within the talks – and not just between governments, but also NGOs. Essentially what it boils down to is who’s responsible for taking action on climate change and how much they’re required to do. The US is the largest historical emitter of greenhouse gases, but emerging economies like China, India, and Brazil are quickly surpassing developed countries in terms of annual emissions. Does that mean they need to do more?
As you can probably guess, there are some very divided opinions on that question. The US government is generally seen as public enemy number one by groups who support CBDR and think the US, EU, Japan, Australia, Canada and the like should bear the most responsibility for taking action, both in terms of reducing emissions but also providing financial support to other countries in need of assistance.
Almost all developing countries and most environmental organizations at the talks see CBDR as being an absolutely essential component of any climate agreement.
Then there are the self-described ‘political realists’ who see CBDR as an archaic concept that perhaps made sense in 1992, but is no longer useful. They would never say it as explicitly, but the US government and groups like the Environmental Defense Fund are more partial to this argument. The tend to publicly support CBDR, but only with qualifications – like the aforementioned addition of ‘in light of different national circumstances’, which essentially means developing countries (at least some of them) need to take on emission reduction commitments as well.
SEARCHING FOR JUSTICE
The CBDR issue points to another division within the climate movement, one that can best be summed up with another catch-all phrase: climate justice. Over the past few years, and especially in Paris, there has been a dramatic reorientation of the climate movement towards one that’s more focused on ‘climate justice’.
Climate justice is an attempt to address the root causes of climate change. This can be tricky territory for mainstream organizations, since capitalism, colonialism, hegemony, militarism, racism, and the patriarchy are very much a part of the problem according to a climate justice analysis.
Despite this, most environmental and climate groups now want to be associated with ‘climate justice’ – even if they don’t yet agree on what it means.
From my point of view, there’s a shared definition that’s beginning to emerge and it’s leading to a movement that looks very different than it did in 2005. The climate justice movement is one that’s focused on protecting people, instead of polar bears. One that’s building community, instead of drafting lobbying documents. And one that’s demanding what’s necessary, instead of what’s politically possible.
There’s still space for the ‘pragmatists working on the inside’, but they’re no longer the leaders of the climate movement. Instead, the power – and responsibility – is being distributed much more widely with renewed focus on local fights, instead of waiting for a national or international deal to ‘solve’ things.
And that’s a very good thing, indeed. It means we’re building an actual movement made up of people – paid and unpaid – fighting for the things they care about. For years, ‘the climate movement’ was a phrase that was used, but didn’t actually mean much. Now we’re turning out hundreds of thousands for marches and are actively fighting fossil fuel infrastructure everywhere it’s being proposed.
What this meant for Paris is that far fewer activists were worried about what the outcome was going to look like. Instead, the focus was on how we could use the political moment of Paris to build the movement.
Compared to COP15 in Copenhagen, that focus on the moment rather than the outcome made all the difference. Instead of leaving the talks deflated by a so-so outcome, the climate movement left with momentum.
We’ve still got a long ways to go, but the wind is at our backs.
BONUS: BACK POCKET NOTES
Everywhere I go I carry around a little notebook and jot things down that I find interesting or curious. Here are a few of those notes from my time in Paris:
- The French state of emergency after the terrorist attacks really screwed things up for on-the-ground organizers. There were multiple massive events planned that all had to be reworked with virtually zero lead time.
- People were making things up on the fly. This happens at every climate summit, but even more so at this one. With the state of emergency, organizers had to completely reimagine what types of public demonstrations were possible.
- Very little pre-planning happened between groups. If you weren’t already in France there was very little in the way of joint civil society strategizing. There was joint policy work being done, but no pan-movement plans in place. Many groups expected to plug-in to in-person activities once they arrived (like the Global Climate March). Of course, most of these activities were scrapped after the attacks.
- There has been very little in the way of concrete follow up. Despite feeling like there’s some solid momentum post-Paris, there has been very little dedicated follow-up. Part of this is the timing of the talks, which happened right before the holidays. The other reason, I suspect, is that folks already have plenty of national and local campaigns underway that haven’t significantly changed post-Paris.
- We all lost horribly at the spin game when the deal came down and probably never had a chance. Paris was built up to be a huge moment and if any agreement came down it was going to be billed as a massive success. This became clear late on Saturday, when the talks wrapped up and the headlines started appearing in rapid succession. The ability to add any nuance to mainstream publications is difficult on the best of days – and was nearly impossible at the close of the negotiations.
- The negotiations are a game of perception management. Contrary to what you might expect, the most important thing at the talks isn’t the negotiating text, it’s what the world thinks about the negotiating text. How the conference is being interpreted back home is what matters.
- Nobody cared about the outcome. That is to say, the emphasis wasn’t on getting an agreement that solved everything, it was building momentum to continue organizing after Paris.
- Groups came together remarkably well this time around. In past years there have been major civil society divisions that have consumed massive amounts of time. This year it seemed like most groups were on the same page, oriented towards work post-Paris.
- The movement is a beautiful thing. There were a remarkable number of people in Paris from all sorts of backgrounds. The amount of listening, sharing, and learning was absolutely massive and will continue to pay dividends over the coming months and years.