Paris: The End of the Beginning

Will Paris be a success or a failure? It will be both. The real question is whether it opens the way to a new future of justice and ambition.

This essay was first published in the Earth Island Journal

As I write this, the United Nations climate conference is only weeks away. And now, of course, it will take place in an atmosphere of mourning, and crisis, and war. Beyond this change of tone, what difference will the November 13 attacks make on the outcome of the negotiations? It is impossible to say, though it’s not too much to hope for heightened clarity, and seriousness, and resolve. This is a time to attend to the future – on this, at least, we should be able to agree.

The essay below was finished before the attacks. I’ve changed only these opening words, which already said that the stakes were high. This has not changed. Nor has my overall claim, that while the negotiations are not going well, they’re not going badly either, and that in any case they must be judged in realist terms.


There’s a way forward for the negotiations, though you wouldn’t know it from some of the commentary, which can be amazingly glib. My favorite example, a perfect snapshot of post-Copenhagen, pre-Paris despair, is food guru turned climate expert Mark Bittman, writing in The New York Times last year: “The U.N. Summit will be a clubby gathering of world leaders and their representatives who will try to figure out ways to reward polluters for pretending to fix a problem for which they’re responsible in the first place; a fiasco. That’s not hyperbole, either. The summit is a little like a professional wrestling match: There appears to be action but it’s fake, and the winner is predetermined. The loser will be anyone who expects serious government movement dictating industry reductions in emissions.”

In fairness, Bittman was writing about COP 20 in Lima, which took place a long year ago. But it was clear even before Lima that this sort of cynicism was counterproductive. The old stories of developed vs. developing, polluters vs. people, duplicitous vs. heroic — true though they were, were simply not true enough. By Lima, the US and China were working together to strike a deal that would hold on both sides of the North-South divide. By Lima, the “climate equity” debate within the halls was making as much progress as the “climate justice” debate in the streets; which is to say, quite a lot, but not nearly enough. In any case, Lima was anything but a futile exercise. It was a breakthrough meeting in several ways, not least because the 134 country G-77+China bloc of developing countries finally begin to negotiate well, and in so doing set up a possible breakthrough at COP21, the 21st Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Paris.

Since Lima, the meeting schedule has been exhausting, and I’ve been to my share. Many of the formal ones have been in Bonn, where the Germans have built the climate negotiations an efficient and even beautiful new home on the Rhine. (The climate negotiations, after all, will never be over.) They’ve also been in Paris, and Lima, and Geneva, and New York, and all around the world. But here’s a question: What are all these meetings for? And how shall we judge them? If you were head of communications at Greenpeace, say, or Oxfam, and if you knew that, soon, on a cold and probably very late night in Paris, you were going to have to “call the outcome,” and that the media would be pushing you, hard, to say either “success” or “failure,” how would you prepare?

What do words like “success” even mean, in a world like this one, in the face of the coming crisis?

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