The long running diplomatic efforts to contain the dangerous impacts of climate change have spawned many stories and legends. One of them goes that the Japanese hosts of the Kyoto protocol became so frustrated at the overrun of the negotiations that they cut off the water, the heating and food to the negotiators. After 24 hours, they had a deal.
A sustained and skilled display of French diplomacy spared the delegates to COP21 in Paris the final indignity of no heating or water, but as the conference overran into Saturday, frantic negotiations were accompanied by the sounds of packers dismantling the national pavilions and NGO display stands that had hosted hundreds of lectures, roundtables and presentations on every aspect of climate change. By Friday evening, the high tech displays that are a feature of UN climate summits — a moving digital wall and a giant globe on which ever more alarming science data had been projected for two weeks – were dismantled and ready to move.
By Saturday morning the food stalls and coffee stands that had sustained the temporary community of COP21 were shuttered and deserted. The lost property office had sorted dozens of unclaimed lost scarves into colour gradations, and the cheerful young people who had handed delegates apples on arrival every morning had gone. Instead there was, from the president of historic COP21, French foreign minister Laurent Fabius, a postcard of an apple. It was time to go home, and to leave the thousands of helpers, workers, security guards, officials and diplomats who had helped to make it work to reflect on their efforts.
From the efficient and free transport, to the people at every stage who cheerfully directed the human traffic flows, the attention to organisational detail in Paris was impressive. Inside the complex and often fractious negotiations, the same attention to detail and organisational intelligence was brought to bear in the constant effort to keep trust alive. The UN and the French hosts reassured the negotiators, soothed ruffled feathers and encouraged the building of coalitions. They urged interest groups and confrontational parties to stay focussed on what mattered so that compromises could be found and the train kept on the tracks.
For Fabius, it came to a head at midday on Saturday, when he took to the stage to announce to the assembled delegates that a final draft would be circulated to them shortly. Even then the story was not over: once the delegations read the text, each one had to signal assent.
Fabius, who has emerged as the unchallenged hero and magician of the conference, spoke with deep emotion about those who had “struggled, but were not able to witness this moment.” In a masterly speech, he stressed that the agreement did not give everyone everything they had wanted. But he added it was fair, robust and balanced, and that every delegation could go home “with heads held high.”
“If no country got all it wanted,” he said, “we have known from the beginning that if everyone insisted on 100% of what they want, collectively we would get 0% of what we need.”
In urging delegates to accept the deal, Fabius told them that the eyes of the world were upon them, a sentiment echoed by the Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, who called on delegates not to abandon the spirit of compromise: “We must not let the quest for perfection become the enemy of the public good,” he said. “I urge you to continue in the same spirit of compromise that has characterised the past two weeks.”
French President François Hollande reminded the delegates of the weight of history. “It is rare in life to have the opportunity to change the world. You have it. Grasp it,” he said.