Pete Souza/White House file photo

Obama, World Leaders May Skip Key Part of Paris Climate Talks

Organizers invite leaders to speak at the beginning of COP21, rather than the end, to avoid the eleventh-hour chaos that marked the close of the Copenhagen climate conference. But does that lessen the chances for a deal?

The 2009 cli­mate talks in Copen­ha­gen were on the brink of col­lapse when Pres­id­ent Obama crashed a meet­ing of the lead­ers of China, In­dia, Brazil, and South Africa.

“[T]he Pres­id­ent and I set off through the long hall­ways of the sprawl­ing Nor­d­ic con­ven­tion cen­ter, with a train of ex­perts and ad­visors scram­bling to keep up,” Hil­lary Clin­ton writes in her State De­part­ment mem­oir Hard Choices. Clin­ton re­calls “char­ging up a flight of stairs and en­coun­ter­ing sur­prised Chinese of­fi­cials who tried to di­vert us by send­ing us in the op­pos­ite dir­ec­tion.”

The res­ult­ing ad hoc ne­go­ti­ations helped sal­vage an in­ter­im, el­ev­enth-hour ac­cord that kept afloat the wobbly ne­go­ti­ations to craft a new in­ter­na­tion­al cli­mate deal, but Copen­ha­gen is re­membered as both a mess and dis­ap­point­ment. This fall, the ven­ue is Par­is, where the U.N. will once again hold cli­mate talks with a goal of reach­ing a new ac­cord to battle glob­al warm­ing.

But don’t look for the drama of an Amer­ic­an pres­id­ent bar­ging in on fel­low heads of state in a private meet­ing on the fi­nal night, be­cause—if all goes ac­cord­ing to plan—none of them will be there.

In­stead of bring­ing in heads of state at the end of the two-week con­fer­ence, French of­fi­cials have flipped the script and in­vited them to the be­gin­ning.

French Pres­id­ent Fran­cois Hol­lande de­scribed the de­cision this way in a re­cent speech: “At the Par­is con­fer­ence, I thought it best to in­vite the heads of state and gov­ern­ment right at the start of the con­fer­ence, not the end. At the end it’s some­times too late and even their rhet­or­ic isn’t enough to con­vince people and wrap things up any more. So it will be at the start of the con­fer­ence; that’s the les­son we learnt from Copen­ha­gen.”

Vet­er­ans of cli­mate sum­mit battles and oth­er cli­mate ex­perts like the concept.

U.N. cli­mate chief Chris­ti­ana Figueres, in a state­ment to Na­tion­al Journ­al, said, “We think this will provide a strong polit­ic­al im­pulse at the highest level to min­is­ters as they fi­nal­ize the new uni­ver­sal cli­mate agree­ment and its sup­port­ing de­cisions.”

Figueres, mind­ful of Copen­ha­gen’s les­sons, has been la­bor­ing to en­sure that much of the ground­work is laid well in ad­vance of the con­fer­ence. It is “really stu­pid to put 300 pages in front of pres­id­ents at the last minute and give them a red pen,” she said last year.

Alden Mey­er of the Uni­on of Con­cerned Sci­ent­ists, who has been at­tend­ing in­ter­na­tion­al cli­mate sum­mits for 25 years, says hav­ing world lead­ers come to the fi­nal stages in Copen­ha­gen was a bad idea. The prob­lem: For­eign and en­vir­on­ment min­is­ters were hes­it­ant to make polit­ic­al com­prom­ises be­cause their bosses were en route.

“I saw everything from the in­side, and the fact that lead­ers were com­ing in at the end of the con­fer­ence con­trib­uted to the para­lys­is in the ne­go­ti­ations,” said Mey­er, an in­form­al ad­visor to Con­nie Hede­gaard, the Dan­ish of­fi­cial who over­saw that sum­mit. “Clearly the French learned the les­sons of Copen­ha­gen. I haven’t heard of any­one who thinks it’s a good idea to bring the lead­ers in at the end.”

There are plenty of top­ics for ne­go­ti­at­ors to grapple with, such as fund­ing for poor coun­tries’ ef­forts to battle cli­mate change and ad­apt to it, veri­fic­a­tion of na­tions’ steps to cut emis­sions, and more.

And, of course, there’s the form of the ac­cord it­self at a time when there’s simply no chance of get­ting a form­al, bind­ing car­bon-cut­ting treaty through the U.S. Sen­ate.  

In­deed, much of Obama’s cli­mate-change agenda has gone around Con­gress with a series of ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tions, in­clud­ing first-time car­bon emis­sions stand­ards for power plants, re­cently pro­posed rules to cut emis­sions of the po­tent green­house gas meth­ane from oil-and-gas de­vel­op­ment, and ma­jor in­creases in auto mileage stand­ards.

Ahead of Par­is, coun­tries have been sub­mit­ting post-2020 emis­sions pledges to the U.N., called “in­ten­ded na­tion­ally de­term­ined con­tri­bu­tions.” The U.S. is pledging to cut emis­sions by 26-28 per­cent com­pared to 2005 levels by 2025, a pledge Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials say can be met with ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tions ab­sent a new cli­mate law.

Obama is widely ex­pec­ted to ap­pear in Par­is, al­though the White House has not con­firmed the vis­it.

One pos­sible struc­ture for the Par­is deal that has gained steam is a hy­brid mod­el in which na­tions’ do­mest­ic emis­sions-curb­ing pledges are not in­ter­na­tion­ally bind­ing, but they’re pack­aged with oth­er ele­ments which are man­dat­ory.

Peter Og­den, a former State De­part­ment cli­mate aide, said hav­ing heads of state at­tend on the front end could be be­ne­fi­cial, be­cause they can achieve high-level break­throughs that ease the path for the nitty-gritty ne­go­ti­ations to fol­low.

“If you think you can get the break­throughs that you need by hav­ing the lead­ers there early in the con­fer­ence and they can ac­tu­ally cut through some of those core dif­fer­ences, you do al­low yourselves more time to have the seni­or cli­mate dip­lo­mats left be­hind to work through the re­main­ing is­sues,” said Og­den, who was chief of staff to top U.S. cli­mate dip­lo­mat Todd Stern. “Then you give your­self time to really de­vel­op as full and ro­bust an agree­ment as pos­sible in Par­is.

“There is a lot of work that can get done if the lead­ers in at­tend­ance are really able to move the ne­go­ti­ations in­to their fi­nal phase,” ad­ded Og­den, who is now with the Cen­ter for Amer­ic­an Pro­gress, a lib­er­al think tank and ad­vocacy group.

Brown Uni­versity pro­fess­or J. Tim­mons Roberts, an in­ter­na­tion­al cli­mate policy ex­pert, called the French plan a “great idea” to at least avoid a re­peat of the Copen­ha­gen mess.

“It should cre­ate the top down polit­ic­al mo­mentum if those heads of state are at least roughly on the same page that we need an am­bi­tious cli­mate agree­ment,” said Roberts, a pro­fess­or of en­vir­on­ment­al stud­ies and so­ci­ology.

Not every­one is ex­cited about the early ap­pear­ance by heads of state.

Har­vard Uni­versity cli­mate ex­pert Robert Stav­ins, who was in Copen­ha­gen, pre­dicted it will “have vir­tu­ally no ef­fect on the sub­stant­ive out­come” of the ne­go­ti­ations. “The one thing we can be sure it will do is pro­duce some Par­is traffic jams, when streets are closed for se­cur­ity pur­poses,” said Stav­ins, dir­ect­or of the Har­vard En­vir­on­ment­al Eco­nom­ics Pro­gram.

Former U.N. cli­mate chief Yvo de Bo­er, in an in­ter­view with the web­site Re­spond­ing to Cli­mate Change, said it it’s not clear what pur­pose it serves, and that it could even de­tract from dis­cus­sions on the hoped-for pact. And lead­ers may not want to fly to the City of Lights just to give a speech at the start of the meet­ing and then go back home.

“My ex­per­i­ence is, politi­cians travel in or­der to cel­eb­rate suc­cess,” he said. “To fly to Par­is and just show a bit of leg at the be­gin­ning of a con­fer­ence is not really enough of a reas­on,” he said.

But don’t worry: heads of state or no heads of state, there will be drama at the end. U.N. cli­mate talks routinely blow past their dead­line amid last-minute hag­gling, and Mey­er says Par­is will likely be no dif­fer­ent.

“The ne­go­ti­at­ing cul­ture is you hold a lot of your chips un­til the end,” Mey­er said.