Why it's been smooth sailing (so far) at Paris climate summit

There's a long history of climate summits devolving into acrimony. Not so in this year's Paris climate talks, at least not yet.

Stephane Mahe/Reuters
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius (C), President-designate of COP21, and Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate change Christiana Figueres (L) attend the World Climate Change Conference 2015 (COP21) at Le Bourget, near Paris, France, December 9, 2015.

No parties have stormed out of meetings. No alternate draft agreements have been leaked. No faux pas have slipped from the lips of sleep-deprived diplomats. The latest draft text agreement from the UN climate talks, released Wednesday afternoon Paris time, still leaves a lot of questions unanswered, but it has earned high marks from diverse constituencies.

Observers and officials say the past week and a half here in suburban Le Bourget has gone surprisingly well – particularly for a process that asks nearly 200 countries to dramatically reshape their economies. It has all culminated in buzz and optimism as a tentative Friday deadline approaches.

There's a long history of climate summits devolving into acrimony, so why has Paris been different up to this point? Experts cite three main reasons:

  • The hard work is (mostly) already done
    Countries submitted their climate pledges in advance of the summit, which takes a lot of the pressure off of decisions that must be made under a tight deadline. There's no bickering about one another's specific emissions targets. Instead, diplomats are free to focus on the toughest issues that have long thwarted a major global climate agreement. For example, that means energy here is spent on how to finance the plans rather than the exact nature of the plans themselves.
  • The French have been adept hosts
    A little known fact about international climate diplomacy: Event planning matters. The failure of the last major climate summit in 2009 has been at least partially blamed on poor communication and management by its Danish hosts. Not so here in Le Bourget, participants say.

    "This is one of the smoothest-run meetings in terms of the process, the lack of procedural arguments, the overwhelming support for the way [French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius] is conducting these negotiations," says Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists. "People just feel they are in good hands."   

  • Everyone here wants an agreement
    No one here wants Paris to end in failure. They may not agree on everything that should be in the agreement, but the gap between developed nations and developing nations is smaller than ever before. That's because the evidence of the climate change threat has only gotten stronger. The cost of transitioning to cleaner energy has only gotten lower. And the number of parties engaged in the process has only expanded. Almost everyone has put commitments on the table regardless of their standing in the global economic order.

    "[W]e have learned, through the years, that every country needs to take action based on its own assessments and its own capabilities, and those will change over time," US Secretary of State John Kerry said in a speech here Thursday. "So everyone does what they can, coming out of Paris. But no one is forced to do more than is possible."

  • Still, plenty could go wrong in the 24 to 48 hours that remain in the process. There's a phrase going around here: Nothing is agreed upon until everything is agreed upon.

    It's a reminder that no single issue is certain in global climate negotiations until every issue is settled and the gavel falls at the final meeting. 

    At this summit, oil-rich nations are uneasy about language that pushes the world closer to a target of 1.5 degrees C warming above pre-industrial levels. Developing nations are still skeptical of pledges to provide financial aid for clean energy and climate adaptation. The US is pushing for more transparent and more frequent reviews of national climate pledges. What’s more, current climate pledges still would allow for a rise in global temperatures that scientists say is dangerous.  

    “At the utmost, this has to be a floor from which we very, very, very quickly escalate,” Bill McKibben, a longtime climate activist and cofounder of environmental group 350.org, tells the Monitor.

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