Skip to main content

The First Week at COP21: Competing Realities in Paris

The climate summit emerges from a rocky week with a new text. Negotiations have been transparent and equitable—or maybe opaque and grossly unbalanced. Welcome to the COP-Spin Zone.
Green Korea United COP21 climate

"There is no border in the sky." Protestors from Green Korea United at COP21 Saturday in Paris. (Photo: Ted Scheinman/Pacific Standard)

There are several versions of COP21 taking place in Paris this week. On any given day at the Blue Zone in the northeastern suburbs of Paris, there can be over 100 official events, from briefings to panels to technology demonstrations and major announcements on finance initiatives.

Drone companies want to give you fliers and show you how green their drones are; Michael Bloomberg wants to serve you canapés and show you how green his socks are. At press luncheons, the airlines and power companies feed you salmon along with rather dubious declarations about their imminent carbon-neutrality. United States Senators drop in to reassure the rest of the world that, no, not everyone in the legislative branch wishes to scuttle the talks.

Saturday afternoon, over in Montreuil, Bill McKibben and Naomi Klein hosted's "public trial" of ExxonMobil. The charges are that Exxon scientists "buried" proof-positive of global warming for decades. Actor Peter Sarsgaard was among the judges. You can probably guess the verdict.

Then there are the negotiations themselves, with their frillions of break-out groups; there are the critiques from civil society organizations, who excoriate what they call the opacity of this year's climate negotiations; and there are the so-called "major events," where ministers and ambassadors and United Nations heavies make public appearances in the plenary halls while acrimonious debates roil in the back rooms.

It's a lot to follow if you're not in Paris; it's almost impossible even if you're on the ground. The conference is a sort of controlled bedlam, administered by means of sequestration. And here's where we see most clearly the dissociative nature of the talks—in the stories we tell each other about it.

Like all negotiations, this is an affair of competing realities. The competition for spin is lively, and miraculous to behold. This is why reporters can attend two panels in the same day, hosted by subsidiaries of the same NGO, and leave with the curious impression that you've been briefed about the future of the climate on two entirely distinct planets.

None of this is entirely surprising at talks such as COP21, but the range and energy of these jockeying narratives leave the impression that the most important international summit in years—some would say in history—is perilously unmoored from any central reality.



Earlier this year, Laurent Fabius said that COP21 would "fully include all civil society actors." But if you talk to representatives from the civil society observers, such as Willy D'Costa of Indian Social Action Forum and Asad Rehman with Friends of the Earth, you will hear that civil society has, in fact, been pushed as far to the margins as possible. These observers continue a vigorous protest over their limited role at this year's COP—an exclusion that began this summer at the intersessional meeting in Bonn.

"In Bonn, we were cut out," Rehman told me last week. "And it's continued here in Paris. Civil society around the world provides technical expertise to poorer developing countries, who have much smaller negotiating groups, so we're vital to them. As they say, in the dark corners of rooms, bad deals are made, and only when you can shine this light of transparency can you actually create a robust agreement."

Lidy Nacpil, who heads the Asian Peoples Movement on Debt and Development, tells me quite simply: "This has been one of the most untransparent COPs that I've ever seen."

Meanwhile, representatives from most of the developed countries have been eager to praise the transparency of last week's talks—a narrative roundly rejected by pretty much every civil society actor here.

In his closing remarks after Saturday's "Action Day," U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said that "civil society is mobilizing as never before." He's right. They've never had so many hurdles to jump.



Civil society groups walked out of the 2013 Warsaw COP in high dudgeon, a tactic that some developing countries adopted on Thursday night in Paris. Speaking last week, South African Ambassador Nozipho Mxakato-Diseko, who chairs the G77 group of 132 developing countries, said the United States had been negotiating in bad faith, and that the old power blocs—wealthier northern states—had effectively sidelined the needs of the global south: "Why it is that, after all these decades, all our members remain developing countries with little or no voice in global decision-making processes and institutions?"

Meanwhile, at a U.S. Climate Action Network briefing on Saturday, Liz Gallagher, program leader at E3G, offered rosy remarks about cooperation between north and south, saying that "the spirit of the leaders had come through."

"The north-south dynamic has become more nuanced around most issues," Gallagher said, "except for finance, where that still is in play"—the equivalent of praising a car without seeing the engine.

Mindy S. Lubber, president of the NGO Ceres, is similarly sanguine: "The collective will is palpable. We are optimistic it will provide the momentum needed to cross the finish line," Lubber says.

Civil society reps have a different view about the "spirit of the leaders," arguing that heads of state made a show of embracing strong, ambitious language last Monday, after which negotiators from developed countries promptly entrenched themselves in the old bargaining positions. Chee Yoke Ling, director of Third World Network, said on Saturday that the latest documents submitted to the COP presidency—two versions of an accord, including the "bridging text" that kicks finance questions up to the ministers—offer "pathetically" little progress. "The Kyoto Protocol is in a coma," she told reporters on Saturday in the Blue Zone. "Not even intensive care—a coma."

As for finance—the item that Gallagher noted in her aside—not everyone at Climate Action International is playing Pollyanna. Earlier on Saturday, Brandon Wu observed that, "without finance, there’s no support for the poorest and most vulnerable."

D'Costa, as usual, offers the blunt take: "It's a false solution, and a big joke. The people who created the crisis now say everyone should contribute."

The matter of finance—scaled and properly differentiated according to each country's needs, capacity, vulnerability, and historic emissions—now heads to the ministers, of whom Fabius has convened 14 "facilitators." Seven of these facilitators hold top-level appointments in developing states, an equitable spread that several island representatives call promising. The duty of unprecedented cooperation—much touted but hardly evident this first week—now passes to them.



There are competing political realities, and then there is scientific reality. For most people observing the talks, it's been drilled into our heads that a rise of two degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels is the absolute ceiling for long-term global sustainability. Developing nations, especially island nations, are continuing their impassioned plea for policy that halts warming at 1.5 degrees. Arab states as well as Venezuela have effectively vetoed any discussion of lowering that ceiling—one of several flash points that made last Thursday so testy.

That 1.5-degree limit is an understandably urgent concern for poor and low-lying nations. It is also, according to every scientist with whom I've spoken, an impossible goal. This year, we finally passed the troublesome benchmark of 400 parts-per-million of CO2 in the atmosphere; at last year's COP in Peru, filmmaker and climate specialist Michael Wadleigh—then serving as a spokesperson for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—was already warning that the 1.5 option was a pipe-dream.

"I'll tell you, 1.5 degrees Celsius is gone," he said. "It's just obvious to us. I'm sorry—this is science, and you can't deny it."

On the eve of this year's COP, David Victor, a professor of international relations and climate policy at the University of California–San Diego, made it clear that even two degrees is a fantasy.

"There is no scenario by which any accord that's realistic on this planet is going to get us to two degrees because the trajectory on emissions right now is way above two degrees," he told NBC.

Speaking with me on Saturday, Wadleigh expressed bafflement that every official party line—from NGOs to world leaders to the operatives in the breakout groups—has hewn to the fiction that two degrees is in any way feasible.

"We're not on track for two," he said. "We're saying it looks a lot more like four. And meanwhile the scientists here, they're shaking their heads, they're"—Wadleigh mimicked a face-palm. "It's like, what world are these other people living in?"


There are, of course, basic if unsatisfying explanations for all of these apparent discrepancies. The developed countries are concerned about overcommitting their resources, whether over the short or long term, and the specter of terrorism is still competing with climate in ways that hamper progress on either front. From the G7 perspective, this year's strict limits on participation by observer-advocates will help temper the chaos and prevent what they consider obstructionist idealism.

Developing countries are pushing for temperature limits that most of them know are impossible because that's how you haggle when your life is on the line.

The position of mainstream NGOs seems pretty clear: An inadequate deal is still a deal, and worth selling, and so they're selling it. There's nothing wrong with that—it's a kind of political realism, and it's the line they're sticking to.

But there are other realisms that go with other realities. Take Arivudai Nambi Appadurai of the World Resource Institute, who watched from Paris as his hometown of Chennai, India, suffered devastating and deadly floods last week. "Today, as negotiators haggle over the details of a climate agreement in Paris, my hometown is literally underwater," he wrote on Thursday. "For some this is abstract; for me and my family, there is literally no time to waste."

We now enter the proving-phase of the summit. Monday will be a return to press scrums and traffic jams, with John Kerry's gray eminence joining hundreds of other such eminences in the Bourget mêlée. There will be all-nighters. There will be protests. There will be die-ins. The final push, according to COP veterans, will make the past few days seem like a vacation.

And all that without any real political disruption from civil society organizations.

In other words, what we've been living through is actually the simpler version of COP21. Welcome to Bedlam.


"Catastrophic Consequences of Climate Change" is Pacific Standard's year-long investigation into the devastating effects of climate change—and how scholars, legislators, and citizen-activists can help stave off its most dire consequences.