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An Insider’s Account of the Long, Strange Journey to the Paris Climate Accord

Kathy Cumming attended the Paris Climate talks as part of the New Zealand delegation, and as media ambassador for the Green party. She writes about witnessing the mundane and magical creation of history. 

Let me start at the end; now commonly referred to as “only the beginning”. A deal to prevent climatic catastrophe had been struck on the outskirts of Paris.

At 8pm on the evening of December 12th, the French President of the COP21 climate talks – a dapper, no-nonsense and frankly heroic Laurent Fabius – whacked his gavel down to mark the miracle. C’est fait. Bon nuit fossil fuels.

For sure people cried. Many among the 45,000 people there had dedicated decades to getting this thing out of the blocks. A colleague and I sat with just our shoulders touching, tears dropping quickly and quietly onto our laps.

Paris became synonymous with two things at the tail end of 2015 – one was terror and the other, conversely, was the saving of the world. COP21. The last chance saloon. As in, seriously now guys, we either do it this time or Devonport’s an island and Tuvalu a former one.

The security risk in Paris sat stubbornly on “extreme”. Metro stations had been evacuated in the days leading up to the talks due to bomb scares. A security advisor at Parliament called me up for a personal safety briefing. “When in Gay Paree..!” he quipped. He assured me the risk of being pick-pocketed remained exponentially higher than being taken out in a mass shooting.

As I packed my French phrasebook and thick coat, Bill English dismissed projected sea level rise as “speculative”, and the Prime Minister said science would save us and excluded agriculture from the ETS review.

I set off for France, full of hope for a new dawn.

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Image courtesy of @davidtong

You travel. You tip time on its head. And it fights back in your bones. I slept as we flew over Frankfurt. You have to fly high above the clouds to find light in Europe these days. (I noticed the metaphor in that only after thinking it; mostly I was just bracing for winter).

Paris smelt more like piss than fear. People were doing what the media said they were doing – “getting on with things”.

Day One of COP (standing for “Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Climate Change”). Giant warehouses and elaborate tents had been erected on an 18 hectare exhibition site called Le Bourget, 15 km from Paris. There the suits and scarves had set up camp . It was a travelling circus, a small city, and our home for the next two weeks.

Obama arrived. Round the back. He said all the right things – “I actually think we’re going to do it. I actually think we’re going to solve this thing”. Trudeau was cavalier – “Canada is back!”

The conference was formally opened in one of those sprawling plenary halls, countries’ plaques on desks and spindly microphones at the ready for words of diplomacy, obstruction, compromise, despair.

UN climate chief Christiana Figueres– dapper, no-nonsense and frankly heroic – said “never has a responsibility so great been in the hands of so few”. Was it comforting to know Tim Groser was among the few? That is a question I asked myself.

John Key rocked up. He was jovial; attempting a gentle gag on the world stage which went down okay-if-not-great. He spoke of “courage and political will” on climate change. Say what? He called for an end to fossil fuel subsidies worldwide, neglecting to mention the tens of millions of taxpayer dollars he chucks at oil and gas exploration every year. This audacious display of hypocrisy earned New Zealand COP’s first Fossil of the Day Award. What I most liked about the subsidy event was its hashtag – #endFFS.

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New Zealand Youth Delegation spokesperson Zoe Lenzie-Smith collecting the Fossil of the Day award on NZ’s behalf (Image courtesy of @davidtong)

Within the vast perimeter of the conference site, the baguette queue hardly moved and food did not come cheap. I stood in the lunch queue next to a man from Gambia. His soup and lentils and bread came to 14 euros. “I cannot afford that,” he said, and put it all back.

We were in Europe of course, so there were some terrifically attractive people about. It was enough to make you self-reflective. As a fellow New Zealander said to me, “we’re good people, but let’s face it, we’re not very good looking”.

Then there were the celebrities: Sean Penn, Arnold Schwarzenegger, John Kerry, Al Gore, Barack, Richard Branson, Lord Nicholas Stern. Who the hell wasn’t at this thing? 3,000 of the world’s journalists sure were . Double that number had applied for accreditation. From New Zealand? Chris Bramwell of RNZ and the Herald’s Jamie Morton cut lonely Kiwi figures (note well that Jamie was funded not by his publication, but jointly by the Science Media Centre and Morgan Foundation). They worked like demons, Chris of course having to file in the early hours for Checkpoint. Her antisocial schedule made the BBC

The New Zealand Herald's Jamie Morton (left) and RNZ's Chris Bramwell

The New Zealand Herald’s Jamie Morton (left) and RNZ’s Chris Bramwell

Behind closed doors, talks were tough. I sat in a three-hour meeting entitled “ADP contact group on agenda item 3 (articles 3,4,5,6,9 and related decision paragraphs)”. Here’s how the discussion went:

“We make a proposal to remove the brackets.” “Can we remove the brackets?” “Any objections to removing the brackets? There is an objection. We continue the discussion” “We’d like to propose new brackets” “Can I suggest we don’t add any more brackets lest the whole thing becomes bracketed?” This planet-saving business seemed to boil down to pairs of square marks at the beginning and the end of sentences. Who knew?

One US negotiator had a perpetually tense jaw. “I’m not trying to waste time, I’m actually trying to save time,” he told the Chair as they battled over… you guessed it, brackets.

It was nice being able to put faces to countries. One of China’s negotiators was so young and open-faced! Surely not the type to knee-cap a decent deal with mulish demands for developed countries to do more.

Brackets were inserted. Brackets were removed (am I repeating myself?) Brazil likened them to “carbon molecules… polluting our text”. It was Kafka-esque and disheartening.

By day three a gentle panic had set in. Monsieur Fabius told negotiators “thanks for your efforts but progress is too slow”.

I happened to read an article by Arundhati Roy on an unrelated topic. She said “it’s possible that our puffed up prideful intelligence has outstripped our instinct for survival.” It seemed relevant as Governments kept trade, votes and tactics front of mind.

draft Paris Agreement

A rare shot of a portion of the Draft Paris Agreement sans brackets

Friday 4 December: a fresh draft text released.  1,700 square brackets remained (signifying unresolved issues, incidentally). “They’re still just re-arranging the deck chairs on the ship to get a better view of the iceberg,” said one observer. But you know what? The front of the document read “Draft Paris Agreement”. This was the first time the words had been used. People seemed very broadly happy. We’d come this far. It was there in ink.

Monday 7 December: Ministers arrived to take the baton from officials, Simon Bridges among them. He was jetlagged, but looking forward to meeting with Total the following day in the city; Total being one of the world’s six “supermajor” oil companies. The dissonance hurt my brain, never mind the climate.

Tuesday, Wednesday: Would it ever end? Half those there look pained and exhausted. The other half looked high, I guess, on a mixture of things: rolling deadlines; the heady mélee of climate diplomacy; the latent potential for bracket removal.

New Zealand made a name for itself in surprising ways.

Back home Paula Bennett got the climate change portfolio. The Greens asked the Parliamentary library to search for any public records featuring both “Paula Bennett” and “climate change”.

None were found.

I spent a day talking to Pacific Island leaders about their bid to have 1.5 degrees set as the global temperature goal in the agreement. They told me “people will slip through the cracks between 1.5 and 2” and whole countries would be obliterated. They were counting on their neighbour New Zealand for support. But it wasn’t to be. Paula Bennett told the House her Government’s commitment was to 2 degrees. However, when the issue wouldn’t die and the US and EU swung in behind low-lying states, National changed its tune . Minister Grosersince it’s obviously so important to Pacific Island countries we’ve said ‘OK’.” 

Snippets of conversations in COP21 hallways: “disappointed with this, happy with that, vision, ambition, targets, red lines, light pink lines, damned baguette line.” People really were discussing parts per million in the loos. You could not knock these 45,000 people who’d come from all corners of the globe. They were full spectrum, knee-deep in climate. They were fighting for lives.

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Image courtesy of @davidtong

Wednesday 9 December. An updated text, down from 46 pages to 26 and – wait for it – a 75% reduction in the number of square brackets.

Negotiators began to work through the night. Jokes abound about “walks of shame” back at diplomats’ hotels at 6 or 7 in the morning. Hardly. These people were slogging their guts out for a better world.

Yet this thing had eluded even the most seasoned officials for decades. It was the deal that couldn’t. As the deadline for a final agreement loomed, and the hottest year on record drew to a close, negotiators continued to clash swords over differentiation (the degree to which developed countries should do more than developing), finance and ambition.

Friday 10 December: it was clear the 5pm deadline would not be met. Yet weirdly, the circus began to leave town. Stalls were packed down. People began to pass through the conference centre with wheelie suitcases. I watched as the US dismantled its giant interactive globe using hammers and force and prayed to god this wasn’t emblematic.

Saturday 11December: a waiting game for those left. The big brass took to the stage in the early afternoon and laid it on thick. French President Francois Hollande told negotiators (who still had the final breathelss straight to run that evening) that “it is rare in a lifetime to have the opportunity to change the world. You have that opportunity.” Laurent Fabius: “The world is holding its breath. It counts on all of us.” Some of their words were so moving a UN translator broke down.

At one point during the speeches I ran through the vast venue to grab my laptop, which I’d left back in the media hall. Everywhere I turned, people’s eyes were glued to the small screens broadcasting proceedings. You’d have heard a euro drop.The whole thing had a man-on-the-moon feel.

end of story

Then Hollande came right out with it: “This will be a major leap forward for man-kind.”

They released what was to be the final text – 31 pages and blessedly bracket-free. There was the usual clamber at the printers in the media centre, a clamber all about. People stooped over desks, crouched in hallways and clustered in cafés, trying to assess at speed what had survived the final cull, what had been dropped and what had been altered.

Meanwhile, across town, thousands were protesting on the streets of Paris. For some, watered down protection for human and indigenous rights in the agreement made it unconscionable. “NEVER TRUST A COP” read one banner. Many were adamant this whole thing was going to be a cop out.

Back at Le Bourget we bit our nails and milled around. There was some last minute haggling over a verb, but suddenly Laurent Fabius was back on stage and before you could say “Minister Bridges met with who during COP?” the gavel was down. She was ratified. 195 countries signed up to the first ever universal agreement on climate change.

A gamechanger, historic, momentous, a turning point, potentially bigger than the industrial revolution. There was no end to the superlatives.

In truth the deal’s less than perfect. But it’s the very best it could have been. And let’s not forget every country in the world just conceded fossil fuels’ days are numbered.That Saturday night, in a surreal conference centre on the fringes of Paris, I was sure I felt the world cough and reposition itself.  

The deal is now what we make of it.

Oh, and the bit that had made the UN translator break down? Laurent Fabius quoting Mandela:

It always seems impossible until it’s done.”

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