Reflections: Oasis or Mirage?

Last night, COP 22 came to a close. After a week of wishing we could get into the negotiations happening behind closed doors, we had front-row seats to the spectacle: what was sure to be an open-and-closed meeting turned into a boxing match between Bolivia and Brazil.

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Of course by front row, I mean the front row of the observers, behind the recognized organizations, behind the delegates. But in the same room!

Delegates spent the day hashing out decision texts. Though the closing meeting was scheduled for 3pm, it kept getting pushed back. At 5:30, the meeting opened suddenly, checked a few easy items off the agenda, and was suspended just as suddenly. Delegates returned to side rooms to work out more decisions, with a promise that they would return at 8pm. 8pm rolled past. Then 9. Then 10.

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The delegate from Bolivia.

Finally at 10:30 the delegates made their way back to their seats. The delegates quickly approved one decision and applauded, to which the COP President said “I’m glad to hear you clapping.” He then invited the delegates to move to the next decision. Though the delegates had apparently spent the day negotiating these details, Bolivia objected. Brazil, repeatedly calling the representative of Bolivia his “dear friend,” argued that the proposal was in line with the Paris Agreement and invited Bolivia to reconsider his objections and “follow what you have just read.” Bolivia, in turn, requested clarification from Brazil and objected to creating bad precedent without addressing issues comprehensively. From there, the floor devolved as delegates from different countries took sides. Finally, after India (who usually sides with Brazil) sided with Bolivia, the president called a 5-minute recess to allow delegates to speak in small groups to try to work it out.

Are you confused? Good, because that’s how we felt! We really had no idea what they were fighting about, or why, or why they had spent all week negotiating this text only to disagree at midnight on the last night. We also felt exhilarated! Finally, after a week at an international negotiation, we got to see Nations throw down!

After twenty minutes, the COP President decided their 5-minutes were up and called delegates back to their seats. Bolivia requested more time “amongst the dear friends” to work this out. While Brazil and Bolivia chatted, the COP was able to check a few more easy things off the agenda. Finally, around 1:15am, the President turned back to Brazil and Bolivia.

Brazil, observing that they still felt like the original decision was the right one, agreed, in the “spirit of compromise” to kindly request the Parties to ask the Subsidiary Body of Implementation to take up the matter in the 47th session rather than the 46th.

So here’s where we finally understand what’s happening, and it’s fascinating…or totally frustrating. This whole fight was about whether a sub-committee should talk about the issue in May or December of 2017. They weren’t disagreeing about an issue at all – only when the issue should be talked about.

It was one of those odd moments of clarity – where all of a sudden the entire world zooms out and you can see all the pieces, just for a moment – then it slips away again. As all of this back-and-forth was filtering to me through a translator speaking through a crackling headset, I realized politics really is high school all over again – and that isn’t bad, it’s just something we have to recognize. We have to recognize the way people work together is only amplified on the political scale and further exacerbated on the international scale. I always thought it became somehow simpler and more dignified once ambassadors are talking, but that is not the case. You have to be the caricature of your own Nation, for better or for worse.

So what came out of this COP? Procedures. The Paris Agreement came into effect 4 years sooner than anyone expected, and they weren’t ready for it. So they had to spend this meeting talking about how they are going to talk about things under the Paris Agreement. Fascinating and frustrating.

The good news is, the fire is lit. In all of the dignitary and diplomat speeches throughout the week, one theme shone through: the rapid ratification of the Paris Agreement was a mandate to get to work. In my return to America, where the next four years are likely to be a struggle, I will carry the flame with me, as these delegates will carry it with them to their Nations. For we are not alone.