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The Paris Climate Talks Are About to Get Tense

As the heads of state leave town, the real negotiations are set to begin.

Loic Venance / Getty

LE BOURGET, France—It feels like the whole world has come together at the Paris climate talks, and I don’t mean that strictly in a good way. I mean it has literally felt for the last two days like the whole fricking world is here, and they are all holding press conferences, demanding their entrance badges, and lining up for baguette sandwiches at the same time.

United Nations organizers say they expected 50,000 people to come. If they hit that, and it feels like they did, then this group of hangars and warehouses next to the Paris-Le Bourget Airport is currently the 123rd largest city in France—and certainly the only one to have in the last hours claimed three-quarters of the world’s heads of state as residents. It has the infrastructure to match. The main walkway, marked on the official wall maps as the “Champs-Élysées,” features a post office, a rental car agency, a bakery with a big glass window where you can watch the bakers work the dough, and a several-stories-tall replica Eiffel Tower made of red café chairs.

You may be asking yourself: How are they going to get these 50,000 people to agree on anything? The answer is that they won’t. Also, they don’t have to. It’s hard to say exactly how many of the people here are involved in the main negotiations themselves, even in an ancillary way, but it feels like a very small percentage. Most seem to have come for side events, or to lobby and promote their own projects, or in the case of the activists with the Indigenous Environmental Network who opened their press conference with a few blasts of a wooden flute, to protest the entire enterprise as a corporatist sham.

This is not to say that there isn’t interest in the side events. There was a line in one of the convention halls to put on an Oculus Rift and watch a virtual-reality short about the African Union’s “Great Green Wall” effort, aimed at stopping the Sahara’s southward expansion. Everyone I saw waiting did finally get a chance to put on one of the headsets. That’s better than we got after waiting half an hour for the U.S. delegation to show up to their own scheduled briefing, only to begrudgingly realize that they weren’t going to come. The Americans may still have been hanging out with President Barack Obama, who was giving one last press conference of his own at a side-side event at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development across town before heading back to the states.

The departures of the heads of state mean that the opening rush of the ballyhooed world-historic, unprecedented, look-who’s-here kickoff is over, and the long slog of negotiations more typical of past climate talks is now set to begin. (One musically inclined official told me he thought of the conference’s tone as a sforzando, where the orchestra hits the first note with a hard blast, then immediately goes soft. He declined to speculate on when the real crescendo will begin.)

Amid the muted governmentese and awkward bureaucratic ceremony of the meetings and side events so far, though, the outlines of the fights that will probably dominate the next two weeks or more have been coming into view. One potentially telling side event on Tuesday featured civil society experts from India. The South Asian giant is both an emerging power and a developing country, with interests that overlap those of the U.S., China, and the European Union as well as others that look much more like the most vulnerable states to climate change, such as its neighbors in Bangladesh. In other words, India wants to keep burning fossil fuels to help raise hundreds of millions of people from poverty, while pressing wealthier countries to cut their own emissions, and at the same time pave India’s transition to cleaner forms of energy.

From the perspective of wealthier countries, this could look a lot like having two pieces of cake and eating three. (It’s hard, particularly, to imagine a kind take on this from Republicans, who can’t even admit that man-made climate change is even a thing that is happening.) But something will have to give—with the U.S. and China already officially in broad agreement on what they want a final agreement to look like, many at the conference believe the country set to become the world’s most populous within seven years could make or break the deal.

The Indian experts at the event signaled a hard line. They praised India’s already-made unilateral commitments, including a pledge to quadruple its renewable energy capacity by 2022. But when I asked where India might be willing to compromise at the bargaining table in exchange for a deal, I got back smiles without clear answers. “We are not really only looking for money. We are looking for technical relationships too,” Zeenat Niazi of New Delhi-based Development Alternatives told me.

Another fault line was made explicit in a meeting of smaller, poorer countries who are expected to suffer the most severe effects of climate change. The executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which runs the conference, has insisted that it will be impossible to get the parties in Paris to agree to holding global temperature to 2 degrees Celsius—a level that could still plunge whole South Pacific nations under water. Despite this grim assessment, the vulnerable countries agreed to demand even more ambitious emissions cuts to hold the increase to 1.5 degrees.

They did not say how they would accomplish that negotiating feat. But the members did debut a new hand signal that uses the pinky and index finger on one hand, and five splayed fingers on the other, to spell out “One-Point-Five.”

Obama met with leaders of small island states at the OECD on Tuesday, pledging that they would be heard. He then took another swipe at those who believe the Paris talks can’t or won’t produce a working deal to stop the destruction of much of the habitable world. I actually think we’re going to solve this thing,” the president said. And then he left.