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Who Wants What in the Final Climate Deal

Mandel Ngan / Getty

LE BOURGET, France—The circus ended today.

Every day on the train to the climate summit, I’ve passed a traveling circus from Italy. They set up an old-timey big top in a vacant lot beside the Stade de France, the national soccer stadium, where three suicide bombers pledging fealty to the Islamic State blew themselves up 28 days ago. The neighborhood is Saint-Denis, where police staged a gun battle with the suspected planners of the attack a few days later. A third of its residents are immigrants, mostly from Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia. I like to think people in Saint-Denis were going to the circus and getting a little joy in an otherwise trying time. Today when we went by they were taking the circus down. Everything ends sometime.

The climate summit was supposed to end today too. Negotiators in the plenary hall went at it all night from late Thursday into early Friday morning, arguing and grandstanding about money, degrees Celsius, and “shalls” and “shoulds” until 5:45 a.m. Secretary of State John Kerry took turns at the microphone for the U.S. until at least 2 a.m. As sunrise neared, conference president Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister, said it was time for everyone to get some sleep. There would be no final text today.

So right now, the Le Bourget expo is pretty quiet. Yesterday there were people sleeping everywhere, sprawled out on couches and rows of chairs with their nametags and backpacks in a heap. Today I’m guessing a lot of them are in hotel rooms. The big guns are hidden away in secret bilateral and trilateral meetings where the real work is getting done. If you’re like me, you probably imagined the final climate deal would be a big dramatic vote where hands get raised and the losers storm out, but that’s not it at all. It gets done by “consensus,” which in practice means that everyone will say what they think of the text, and if it seems like pretty much everybody is pretty much OK with it, Fabius will bang his gavel. Then there will be an official press conference, and the Paris Agreement will be born.

What matters right now in terms of getting that agreement is putting pressure on the holdouts. And anyone who’s anyone is holding out over something.

One big point of contention is how strongly the agreement will say global temperatures should be held to a 1.5 degree Celsius increase, instead of 2 degrees. That the debate is happening at all is a surprise. Before the conference officials told me even 2 degrees was all but off the table; the German pavilion with its sunny “Below 2°C—Together We’ll Make It!” signs seemed hopelessly Pollyannaish. But at 2 degrees and above, low-lying islands likely disappear, among other things. This week those small island nations, whose main bargaining power is moral authority, along with a coalition of other vulnerable nations led by the Philippines, managed to get the major powers to sign off on inserting language about 1.5.

The cynics (that’s my delegation), note scientists also say existing emissions have made keeping warming under 2 degrees all but totally unattainable, meaning that you might as well say that global temperatures should go down and it will never rain on negotiators’ birthdays for all the good putting a 1.5-degree limit in the text will do. The affected countries may be hoping to use the lower limit as something to trade for more money, or just a way to get a comforting headline for the folks back home. But advocates say it would be a powerful message to have that strong of a climate goal in a major international accord. “[1.5 degrees] is the fire that drives the agreement,” Liz Gallagher of the environmental lobbying group E3G said today.

That symbolism is certainly powerful enough for Saudi Arabia, whose representative came out strongly against cutting emissions to below a 1.5 degrees increase last night. The cynics muse there that the Saudis are just looking for international help in the future to ease the family’s—I mean, country’s—transition from oil wealth to some other kind. On verra.

India’s bone to pick is finance. They want to force accountability from wealthy countries on their pledge to move $100 billion a year in the direction of developing countries, including India, in exchange for and to help them cut emissions.

The United States meanwhile wants the agreement’s text to say that countries that are becoming wealthy now—read: India and China—could also become donor countries to those affected by climate change. India and China say they’re happy to spend money that way when they feel like it, but that nobody should force them to.

One thing that would kill the deal for the U.S. is if someone inserted text saying that countries could be held financially liable for losses and damages caused by the emissions they’ve pumped in the past. That’s unlikely to show up at this point—a total ban on that kind of thing ever happening was put in as an option last night. At most, the ban might get removed.

The Western powers do want transparency and accounting on emissions cuts, which China and India, who both want to be able to burn coal as long as they need it, are resisting. (The U.S. doesn’t want the cuts themselves to be legally enforceable, however.) They also want everyone to come back to a conference in five years, at which time they will make new pledges and be held accountable for the ones they made before this conference. The idea, one official familiar with the negotiations explained, would be to use the “power of diplomacy” to humiliate countries that don’t live up to their promises. India and China are pushing back on various elements of that as well.

I asked the official if all that pretty much boiled down to gestures of money in exchange for gestures of transparency. “Pretty much,” he said.

Some things appear to be a total loss. There’s no mention in the current text of the aviation and shipping industries, which by 2050 could account for 39 percent of global emissions, according to the European advocacy group Transport & Environment. Greenpeace and other groups fighting for large-scale decarbonization in the near term were baffled by a reference to “greenhouse gas emissions neutrality in the second half of the century.” They’re spending part of today trying to figure out what those words mean.

One never knows what might come out of the secret negotiations—that’s what secret negotiations are for, I guess. New text might appear. Parts of the current 27-page draft might mysteriously go away. Friday’s all about horse-trading: President Barack Obama called Chinese President Xi Jinping to talk about who knows what overnight. John Kerry told reporters today he hoped “meetings with various groups” would lead to a deal in short order. He declined to provide details.

Fabius’s people say the final draft will be made public at 9 a.m. tomorrow (3 a.m. in Washington). A reporter asked Kerry if that means the gavel will go down Saturday afternoon. “Well that’s the hope,” Kerry said. I hear the French will start taking the whole conference set-up down immediately after.