The heroic details of the Paris Agreement

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:

Noting the importance of ensuring the integrity of all ecosystems, including oceans, and the protection of biodiversity, recognized by some cultures as Mother Earth, and noting the importance for some of the concept of “climate justice”, when taking action to address climate change

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.

12 Comments on “The heroic details of the Paris Agreement”

  1. mark December 14, 2015 at 5:26 pm #

    its called the biggest coupe ever. politicians got you to believe for the first time in the history of mankind they were going to keep a promise. they even included a clause which said they were not liable.

    “Politicians and diapers must be changed often, and for the same reason.”

    Mark Twain

    so much momentum lost by those who were working to avert warming.

  2. penninerover December 14, 2015 at 5:31 pm #

    This is indeed a wonderful piece of diplomacy. Having once been in that trade, I really appreciate how difficult this must have been. It is easy to rubbish it but we shouldn’t; it really is a great step forward as all sorts of national leaders have had to seriously engage with this issue, which for some must have been the first time.

    I suspect that the real driver of change will be technologies, finance and markets, and this agreement sends as strong a signal to them as we could reasonably have ever hoped for.

  3. Sarah Wiggins (@SarahWiggins5) December 14, 2015 at 11:47 pm #

    A friend of mine just emailed me with this quote from @BillMcKibben @350.org: “This didn’t save the planet but it may have saved the chance of saving the planet.” But the table by @climateinteract in http://bit.ly/1QpBkgv spells out why we can’t be complacent for a second after #COP21 -that’s a ton of cuts!

  4. Jeremy Williams December 15, 2015 at 11:20 am #

    Yes, in no way is this the big solution and the end of the story. But I don’t think climate change can be stopped without an international agreement either, and we shouldn’t underestimate what an achievement that is. There’s a whole lot more work to do, but now we have a framework to build around and a shared vision to call individual governments back to. McKibben hits the nail on the head, as usual.

    • jennonpress December 15, 2015 at 11:44 am #

      jeremy anytime you can get more than 1 fool to agree is a great accomplishment. 200 makes this the fools agreement of all time as they are rightfully congradulating each other for . that does not change the fact that the document is garbage. please dont encourage the fools. we dont have time for it. certainly not the timeline suggested in the document.

      • Jeremy Williams December 15, 2015 at 11:54 am #

        I disagree that this has been negotiated by fools. I appreciate the limits of the document, and of course it shouldn’t be hyped as the solution we’ve all been waiting for – but the idea that it’s garbage is insulting to the thousands of very intelligent, very patient people who have worked on this for many years.

        Perhaps that makes me naive in your opinion, but I don’t think the world’s leaders rely on my blog for encouragement, so I wouldn’t worry about that.

  5. jennonpress December 15, 2015 at 12:38 pm #

    jeremy, what would have you put in the document? give your self more credit. spend some time with the fools as i have done. fortunately, fixing global warming is not difficult. even easier if you understand that people resist change because their imagination is limited. this can be compensated for by filling in the gaps for them. for instance we do not need to built more power plants, come up with revolutionary new technology or require any money to stop global warming and raise the standard of living for all. all that is needed is to recognize how much of that which we do to day is absolute waste and simply better utilize the resources. more than 95% is absolute waste. only a small portion is needed to fix the mess our world is. the rest can be saved for future generations.

    • Jeremy Williams December 15, 2015 at 1:43 pm #

      Naturally, if I were writing it the agreement would have come out differently. But if I had written it, it wouldn’t have been agreed by 195 countries. If you had written it, it would not have been agreed either.

      Negotiation means compromise, that’s how politics works. If you need something that the whole world can agree on together, that’s how it has to be.

      Ultimately, all those complaining about the Paris Agreement need to answer the question about what they want: this deal or no deal? Because this is the best we’re going to get, and it’s been incredibly hard work.

      • mark December 15, 2015 at 2:01 pm #

        jeremy, again you underestimate yourself. lets hear your agreement. please explain your reasoning for each item and include the benefits for those who cant imagine them.

        • Jeremy Williams December 15, 2015 at 3:26 pm #

          No I don’t underestimate myself. I know for a fact that what I would propose wouldn’t be passed by the British government, let alone anyone else. But then neither do I think that I, as a single individual, know what’s best for everyone.

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