COP 21 and the Paris Agreement – Reflections from the last day

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COP 21 and the Paris Agreement – Reflections from the last day

Gregg Walker – Oregon State University, USA

Saturday 12 December 2015 - COP 21 Day 12 - Part One at 1200

As I begin to write this, I am sitting a COP 21 plenary room, La Loire, on Saturday 12 December 2015 with two thousand others; from both country delegations and civil society organizations.  We gather in an “overflow” room, watching events taking place in the adjacent plenary room, La Seine.  In that room, French Foreign Minister and COP 21 President Laurent Fabius is highlighting key parts of the “Paris Agreement.”  After more than two decades of negotiations, 196 countries have apparently agreed to a legally binding document to collectively confront the causes and impacts of climate change.

Sitting on the dais next to Foreign Minister Fabius are French President Hollande, UN Secretary General Ban-Ki-moon, and UNFCCC Executive Secretary Figueres.  Joining the US delegation is Secretary of State Kerry.  Many prominent Ministers are here. 

COP President Fabius tells the audience, “the time is not to focus on red lines, but on green lines, signifying a unified commitment.”

French President Hollande follows, emphasizing to the country delegations (Parties) that this is “a choice for your country, for your continent, and for the world.”  He adds that “we not be judged on a word, but on an act – not on a day, but a century.”  Speaking with conviction, President Hollande concludes that “It is rare in a lifetime to have the opportunity to change the world – you have it.”

The session closes with much applause and the announcement that the final text will be available at 1330.  The final plenary gathering will occur a few hours later.

Part two at 1920

Now, more than seven hours later, the Parties gather again for the last meeting of the Comite de Paris and the Conference of the Parties (COP) closing plenary.  I am again in an overflow room, with many other observers.  Observer tickets to La Seine were limited and scarce.

Even though I am in La Rhin rather than La Seine, I am anxious to observe the final meeting.  I have followed the UNFCCC process since Kyoto in 1997 (COP 3).  I lost track of the negotiations from 2001-2007, the years in which the Bush administration downplayed the issues of climate change.  When Mediators Beyond Borders earned civil society organization (CSO) status in 2009, MBB colleagues and I proposed a climate change project and I have been attending the COPs and intersession meetings ever since (20 total).

As a UNFCCC observer and as a teacher and scholar of international negotiation and environmental conflict resolution, I have witnessed these past few years a kind of climate change negotiation “rollercoaster.”  The negotiations have at times been agonizing slow, even to a point of apparent disrepair (e.g., COP 15 in Copenhagen).  But in the final days of each COP, the negotiation pace has picked up, leading to such products as the “Cancun Agreements” featuring adaptation, the “Durban Platform” that established Paris as the deadline for a comprehensive climate agreement, and the “Warsaw International Mechanism” to address the volatile issue of loss and damage.  That climate change negotiation roller coaster has gained speed throughout much of this year, particularly this past week.  The “Paris Agreement” seems at hand.

No international agreement satisfies all parties equally, particularly one that involves 196 nations and requires consensus decisions.  Country delegations (Parties) have negotiated throughout the year (or 21 years) to get to this point.  Through deliberative, facilitated negotiations of detailed texts concerning a range of significant issues, Parties have sought “a balanced agreement,” through compromise and the search for common ground.  Is this agreement strong enough to thwart global warming and provide the resources that vulnerable countries need to adapt and survive?  Does it signal the end of an era of fossil fuels and a new period of increased investment in renewable energy?  Is it sufficient to support fragile ecosystems while accommodating sustainable development? Analysts, critics, and supporters will draw an array of conclusions about these and other questions.  Any agreement is a living document, and future UNFCCC meetings, such as COP 22 in Morocco, will provide opportunities to refine and improve this one.

This agreement may signal a watershed moment in global cooperation, confronting a phenomenon that is arguably the most complex global problem ever addressed.  Negotiations have been similarly complex.  As UN Secretary-General Ban-Ki-moon told The Guardian newspaper, “I have been attending many difficult multi-lateral negotiations, but by any standard, this negotiation is [the] most complicated, most difficult, [and the] most important for humanity.”

Throughout my years of studying and observing the climate change negotiations I have remained both an optimist and a realist.  I believed that 190 plus nations would reach an agreement, yet I also knew that the objectives of many Parties and Observer organizations would be tempered, not by what was desirable, but by what was feasible.  The challenges posed by climate change will not end with a Paris Agreement.  As Executive Director May Boeve has observed, “This marks the end of the era of fossil fuels...the final text has some serious gaps…after Paris we’ll be redoubling our efforts to deliver the solutions that science and justice demand.”  The work of climate scientists, climate activists, and climate educators, and climate communicators should (and needs to) continue.

Regardless of how one views the Paris Agreement, it is a testament to deliberative negotiation and constructive argument.  Particularly this year, from Geneva to Bonn to Paris, Parties worked through pages of text, arguing what should be included (or excluded) and in what form as part of a final agreement.  As negotiators and arguers, they were respectful, even as they disagreed strongly on some issues.  Their principled and civil discourse demonstrated what my late friend and graduate school colleague Alfred Snider taught about argumentation and debate throughout the world.

Alfred “Tuna” Snider, Professor and Director of Debate at the University of Vermont for over three decades, died unexpectedly two days ago.  He was about to embark on another of his many journeys to bring debate in all corners of the world.  He taught argument and debate in both developing and developing countries on every continent through debate academies and tournaments.  His Facebook page is filled with accolades and remembrances.  I dedicate this blog post to Tuna and his advocacy of civil discourse, argument, and critical thinking.

Postscript: I just witnessed the consensus approval of the Paris Agreement.  The Parties are now sharing comments…

Oops…the Nicaraguan delegate is voicing objections.  I am not sure why he did not do so earlier, before COP President Fabius gaveled a consensus decision.  Other Parties are voicing approval and support.  Stay tuned.