Editor’s Note: CNN Opinion columnist John D. Sutter is reporting on a tiny number – 2 degrees – that may have a huge effect on the future. You can subscribe to the “2 degrees” newsletter or follow him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. He’s jdsutter on Snapchat. You can shape this coverage.
At the U.N. climate talks – called COP21 – everyone’s attention is focused on a 48-page document that could determine the very fate of the planet.
Say that three times fast.
That’s a (bad) joke, of course, but high-ranking officials here actually are struggling to say the always-changing name of this all-important text aloud.
Most seem to be interpreting “/” mark as “stroke.”
“FCCC-stroke-ADP-stroke-2015-stroke-L6-stroke-Rev1-stroke-Ad1,” Daniel Reifsnyder, who had been helping to oversee the negotiation process here, said in front of a room of hundreds Saturday, his image broadcast onto four local screens and his words translated live into several languages.
“Oof,” he added.
A little comic relief.
There’s a somewhat farcical quality to this important U.N. process, which I do believe is essential if we’re going to slow our pollution and avoid the worst effects of climate change, including super-droughts, extinctions and dangerous sea-level rise. What happens here in a Paris suburb matters to literally everyone on Earth. On the table now is whether countries want to limit warming to 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, which could determine the fate of low-lying Pacific nations such as the Marshall Islands. Success here could help commit 195 countries to ratcheting down their use of fossil fuels – sending clear signals to markets and politicians that the era of oil and coal is drawing to a close.
Failure would help royally screw up the planet for us and future generations.
The actual negotiations – and the garbled documentation at their core – are about as accessible to the public as the pop star Sia’s face or Hillary Clinton’s inner monologue. That is to say: completely off-limits – in this case, hidden behind so much jargon and so many acronyms and punctuational oddities that it’s nearly impossible to penetrate.
I started to wonder about what’s actually in this document – and how the text will be negotiated before Friday evening, which is the self-imposed deadline for the COP21 process.
So I found a few experts to help me make sense of it.
Turns out, this is a document four years in the making.
And it still could use quite a lot of editing before Friday.
Take, for example, this not-inconsequential excerpt:
“Each Party shall regularly prepare, communicate [and maintain] [successive] ### and [shall][should][other] [take appropriate domestic measures] [have in place][identify and] [pursue] [implement] [[domestic laws], [nationally determined] policies or other measures] [designed to] [implement][achieve][carry out][that support the implementation of] its ###].”
Underlying that mess is the idea that all countries in the world should put forward commitments to pollute less and therefore contribute less to global climate change. In U.N. parlance, those commitments have been called INDCs, for Intended Nationally Determined Contributions. The trouble? Not everyone agrees whether the word “intended” should be included in that acronym, or whether the “contributions” should instead be called “commitments,” making them somewhat stronger, said Jennifer Morgan, global director of the climate program at the World Resources Institute. So instead of settling that, the agreed-upon draft text instead says “###.”
Morgan told me she’s heard negotiators reading that as, “hashtag, hashtag, hashtag.”
“I was like, ‘What are they talking about!?’ ” she said.
And she’s been at this for years.
Verb choices like [should] [shall] [will] also matter a great deal to negotiators, since they indicate varying levels of commitment, said Cassie Flynn, climate change adviser for the U.N. Development Program.
“It’s like red pill, blue pill from ‘The Matrix,’ ” she said.
Each leads to a different world, and countries are prepared to fight over those choices.
And then there’s the brackets.
[As in these sorts of brackets.]
They indicate text that is still being haggled over or could be removed.
In Article 2, for example, the draft says the goal of the agreement will be “to hold the increase in the global average temperature [below 1.5 °C] [or] [well below 2 °C] above preindustrial levels …” Maybe that doesn’t sound like a big difference, but low-lying countries in the Pacific, like the Marshall Islands, which I visited earlier this year as part of CNN’s Two° series, argue they won’t exist if global temperatures are allowed to warm 2 degrees Celsius. At that level of warming, it’s likely oceans will rise to the point that much if not all of their land will be uninhabitable.
“That’s how you can track progress in the negotiations – is where the brackets are,” said Morgan, from the World Resources Institute.
Perhaps, then, it’s not a great sign that the entire document currently is in brackets.
The climate summit turned a corner Saturday when the draft text was released. The fact that it was on time, said Flynn and Morgan, is a great vote of confidence in the process.
But look at the 48-page document, and it’s clear there’s much work to be done. Countries still are fighting over whether to try to limit warming to 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius, which has been the international benchmark; they’re debating finance for countries that aren’t causing climate change but need to adapt to its consequences; they’re considering a sort of reparations system – called “loss and damage” – for countries that might disappear if seas keep rising; and they’re trying to decide how frequently these pollution-reduction commitments [and/or contributions] should be reviewed and strengthened. It’s clear to everyone the Paris agreement won’t be enough, on its own, to avoid dangerous warming. But it certainly could help put the world on track to stop warming short of 2 degrees, or perhaps 1.5.
But where and how does all of that take place?
Well, like over-dressed, sleep-deprived grammar teachers, negotiators and government ministers here in Paris for COP21 meet in conference rooms large and small to talk about all of these word and punctuation choices. I’m told the text sometimes is projected on large screens and edited live. Other times, as in a session I watched Saturday night, hundreds of people fill a large room to weigh in on the overall process, raising small laminated pieces of paper to talk.
The nerdiness of this process belies the very palpable emotion at these talks, though. Quick example: At the COP15 talks in Copenhagen, Denmark, the Venezuelan delegate, Claudia Salerno, reportedly cut her hand with her paper-plastic name card, by accident, drawing blood.
“This hand, which is bleeding now, wants to speak,” she said, according to news reports.
So, yeah. Tensions are high.
I haven’t heard of any open wounds this year at COP21. But those involved in the process are “spending sleepless nights only to change one word,” said Petrus Muteyauli, the exhausted, suit-wearing chief negotiator from Namibia, in southwest Africa. It’s easy to feel “like grass that suffers while elephants are fighting,” he said of being a relatively small country at talks dominated by countries such as China, the United States and those of the European Union.
This is a very high-stakes version of “track changes” in a Word doc.
“The seed of the success of the Paris conference is in your hands and at the end of this historic day,” Ahmed Djoghlaf, who was co-chairing the document preparation process, said at the meeting Saturday to discuss how to move forward in editing the draft text.
Djoghlaf represents Algeria, and he cited an African proverb in front of the countries in attendance. “If you want to go swiftly, go alone,” he said. “If you want to go far, go together.”
It’s clear delegates here are going slowly. (They’re not sure what they would call the agreement if it were signed). But hopefully the wait on this four-year edit will be worth it.
Maybe this finally will be the climate agreement that also goes far.