Send up the white smoke, we have a climate deal. Have you read it? It’s worth looking at – and I say looking at, because actually reading it is a big ask. It’s worth looking at because it is a remarkable artifact in itself. You can see every one of those 21 years of debate, the thousands of stakeholders and participants, the millions of dollars spent. You can feel the efforts to include, the delicate side-stepping of controversy, the appeasements and token mentions.
There is a craft to a document like this that is easy to miss because it’s so boring, but every line has been agonised over, debated, edited and re-edited. The end result is an incredibly precise wording, where every nuance – the difference between a ‘recognising’ or an ‘affirming’ – is carefully chosen. If there’s an extra clause, it’s because someone fought for it.
Take this sample sentence, one of dozens of things ‘noted’ in one way or another:
This line is here for the conservation groups, and where it says “all ecosystems, including the ocean”, chances are someone lobbied specifically for marine ecosystems. Then there’s a little something for the indigenous peoples who want recognition of their Mother Earth tradition, but it needs a ‘some cultures’ for those that don’t hold that view. We’ll need a ‘some’ for climate justice too. I suspect somebody will have lobbied for the quotation marks around “climate justice” there, and the words ‘concept of’. We wouldn’t want anyone to mistakenly think that the conference formally acknowledges that there is such a thing as climate justice – but for those who think it matters, we want them to know they have been heard.
This might look like hair-splitting outside of its context, but how else do you get 200 odd countries with different agendas to agree? This is the UN, where everyone gets an equal voice and decisions are taken by consensus. Everybody’s pet issue needs a mention, anyone’s bugbear carefully avoided. This is a document that feels like, and indeed is, an epic act of diplomacy. If the aim is to be all things to all people, then this is a masterpiece.
Of course, just because a document is a historic first doesn’t mean it’s going to succeed. The Magna Carta lasted a matter of weeks. We know that there are weaknesses to the Paris Agreement. The market clearly doesn’t think it spells the end of the fossil fuel era, or extractive industry stocks would have collapsed today. But we knew that this wasn’t going to save the world on its own – a key piece of course, perhaps even the biggest piece in the jigsaw, but never enough on its own. We’ve always known that.
Diplomacy is an uncelebrated art. It happens behind the scenes and it’s not supposed to draw attention to itself. The glory goes to the politicians, not the negotiators. But they have pulled off a heroic feat over the last two weeks, and in all the dissection of what we got or didn’t get, that shouldn’t be missed. For the first time, we have a climate agreement that includes everyone, that unites the world around the target of 2 degrees of warming or less. That was impossible five years ago. That sort of global cooperation wouldn’t even have been imaginable a generation ago.
When you hear people saying it doesn’t go far enough, remember that. Sure, there’s more work to do, but in the history of humanity, we’ve never pulled off anything quite like this.