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In Paris, Who Is In a Position to Save The World?

It's a question that threatens to upend the climate conference.

Patrick Kovarik / Getty

LE BOURGET, France—There’s no better place to sit and gloom longingly about the world than in a Parisian café, especially if that café is six miles north of the city in a glass-and-steel warehouse at the climate change conference.

These are undeniably dark times. The people in this city are still sorting through last month’s massacre, at the hands mainly of their own neighbors, wondering if more is to come. The war in Syria is spiraling out of control. Russia and Turkey are staring each other down. The killing back home in the United States continues without remorse or end. There is hunger, disease, people fleeing for their lives.

Looming above it all is the threat that the planet and its atmosphere may soon become unlivable for us or our children—the very threat the negotiators in suits and dashikis with pink-bottomed paper badges around their necks are supposed to be here to solve.

Also, it’s freezing here in the Media Centre, and a coffee and a croissant cost €3.30.

So forgive me if it all makes one wonder if perhaps things are hopeless, if our lives in this entropic universe are ultimately bound for disorder and doom, to fail. Today it sort of felt that way in the talks. The morning began with what many interpreted as a threat from 134 of the 196 parties here—including China, India, and most of the world’s developing countries—to scuttle the whole deal.

The issue, as ever, is money. The developing countries expect the richest countries, including the United States, that were responsible for the twentieth century emissions that have raised Earth’s temperature so far, to pay for the damage—to help the hardest-hit countries recover and newly industrializing countries adopt cleaner forms of energy. At the moment, that transaction would take the form of the UN-administered Green Climate Fund, to which 37 countries, again including the U.S., have agreed to “mobilize $100 billion per year by 2020.”

But it’s not entirely clear what “mobilize” will ultimately mean. Worse, several of those countries—and this big time includes the U.S.—haven’t approved a dime of their pledges, thanks mainly to recalcitrant legislatures exemplified by the U.S. Republican Party.

That was the context when, late last night, a new draft text of the agreement was released that included something that pissed off China, India, and the developing countries even more: a suggested language change that would switch the people responsible for paying for the cleanup from “developed countr[ies]” to “parties in a position to do so.” This was evidence, they surmised, that the U.S. and Europe were trying to somehow weasel out of their responsibilities.

“What ARE ‘countries in a position to do so?’” Nozipho Mxakato-Diseko, the South African chair of the oddly named 134-member “Group of 77 and China” exasperated at an afternoon press conference. Did the phrase mean they were going to try to rope in other countries to pay their portion? That could include China and India, both of which are major polluters, both of which have large impoverished populations, and both of which might rebel at the suggestion. (China is pledging $3 billion in its own, even more opaque fund.) Or is it a loophole the rich countries will later use to get out of the agreement? (Imagine a President Ted Cruz: “Sorry, we know we pledged to pay $3 billion over four years, but we’re no longer in a position to do so.”)

In an overnight letter, the group told the rich countries to provide “clarity on the level of financial support that will be provided by developed country parties to developing country parties.” Mxakato-Diseko removed any ambiguity from that statement. “Finance will make or break” the deal, she said. “It has to be clearly understood that finance is critical.”

This could be a problem. In a wonky, political sort of way, you can say that the people representing the wealthy countries are precariously balancing their political capital and standing at home against what they need for an agreement on cutting emissions. Asked yesterday whether he can assure the other parties in Paris that Congress will come through with the money, U.S. Special Envoy Todd Stern shrugged: “I hope we get as close to it as we can, but we don’t know yet.”

In an even more cynical and realistic wonky sort of way, you can also argue that the rich countries are demonstrating their true values with the money they throw in the total opposite direction of solving the problem: 40 times more of their peoples’ tax money every year goes toward subsidies to fossil fuel producers, to the tune of $80 billion a year, according to a just-released analysis by the Climate Action Network and Oil Change International.

With more than 800 pieces of bracketed text in the now 50-page draft agreement—more than 800 arguments to be hashed out by now and the end of the conference—it indeed could lead one to despair.

So I stopped for a moment down here by the café, and I put this all aside, and I thought about entropy. Or rather, I watched this very good YouTube video about entropy. And I realized that perhaps I had it a little wrong. In the video, the professor explains that entropy is indeed the rule of the universe, but that we’re wrong to think it simply means disorder everywhere. He says you have to take the whole system into consideration. It is possible, in parts of our universe, for things to come together, to form into patterns and systems, so long as this decrease in entropy is offset by more entropy somewhere else.

And that’s intuitively true. After all, we’re still here.

So maybe if things seem a little dim right now at Le Bourget, that just means some other part of the system is getting better. Maybe the two-thirds of Americans who told a New York Times/CBS News poll they want the U.S. to join a binding international agreement to curb greenhouse gas emissions will hold sway in some meaningful, beneficial way. Maybe the fights about money and blame will boil down, and an agreement that meaningfully cuts emissions to a degree that will make the planet livable will emerge.

Maybe things will get a little crappier around Alpha Centauri, and back here we’ll find a solution to the violence and the hate, and we’ll come together and find a way to leave a better world for those who come after us.

Maybe I’ll get another croissant.