Welcome to 2016. This is the year, finally, when the world starts to be saved from the calamity of climate change. Never mind all that has gone before – inter alia, the Berlin Mandate, the Bali Road Map, the Cancun Agreements, the Durban Outcomes, the Doha Climate Gateway, the Warsaw Outcomes and, not to forget, the Kyoto Protocol – this is the one, the Paris Agreement, that will do the job. Absolutely. Without doubt. No more talk needed. Just get on with it.
Oh wait, hang on, there’s another global meeting at the end of this year. The recent 21st Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Convention on Climate Change (COP21 for short) in Paris resolved to move the whole caravan to Marrakesh next November for the 22nd hot air festival. (The year after, COP23 will be somewhere in the Asia-Pacific region, according to the strict Olympics-style rotation of these fun fairs. Hmmmm, can you think of a country that might be a willing host?)
After Paris, though, what could the COP’s 40,000 delegates, observers, media people, spruikers and general hangers-on possibly have left to talk about? After all, the Paris Agreement is definitive, is it not? All I can say is we’ve been here before. I mean it. We all headed to Marrakesh in 2001 for COP7 – and that followed the absolutely definitive, last word of the Kyoto Protocol.
Just like Paris, Kyoto in 1997 (COP3, for those who like to get these things straight) gave the parties five years to have enough nations ratify the Protocol to bring it into force. The United States refused to ratify, and never has, but the bar had been set so US intransigence didn’t matter (which is the case again). The major holdouts were the Russians, and so, after COPs 4, 5, 6, 6bis and four years of deadlock, the great and good all trekked off to Marrakesh with only 12 months to the deadline to find some way of dragging the Russkies in. And they did: the Marrakesh Accords set up one of the great rorts of all time, the Clean Development Mechanism and international carbon credits trading; and along the way handed enough credits to the Russians to persuade them to ratify the Protocol.
Marrakesh was great. Much fun was had by all – including yours truly, who was there among a small band of observers from Australian industry sent along to, well, observe and report back. Actually, we were lobbying the Australian negotiating team to try to make sure Australian industry didn’t get sold down the river.
This sort of hob-nobbing with power and influence can give you a bit of a buzz, I must admit, but this time the rush was heightened by a little frisson derived from defying danger. It was October 2001. Ring any bells? And there we were in a Muslim country surrounded by hostile people.
Except they weren’t. Security was firm and we were guarded closely by lines of soldiery. Only the greenies at the COP were vaguely threatening. If there was any hostility from the locals, I didn’t notice it. The King of Morocco and his subjects went out of their way, literally, to make us welcome and show off their culture.
One night the King threw a party for everyone – at this stage COP attendance was only in the low four figures – at what I remember as a theme park on the outskirts of the city. It either doesn’t exist any more or my memory is faulty. Dr Google can’t seem to give me an answer. Anyway what happened was that all of us were loaded into buses and whisked across town behind a police escort, sirens blaring. We swept aside all traffic and left people standing in the ditches at the side of the road. You haven’t lived until you’ve had a police escort to a party staged at the whim of an absolute monarch.
Maybe the King won’t do anything similar this year and those who do make it to Marrakesh in November will have to content themselves with the (substantial) tourist attractions and, if they’re that way inclined, like me, the more esoteric fun to be had with UN processes. I’ve been out of the climate change bunfight for more than a decade now and, although I’ve kept an eye on the generalities, really haven’t paid much attention to the detail. But COP21 gained my attention. My Esteemed Leader in our previous UN exercises, who happened to be in Paris on other business at the time of COP21, tipped me off about Marrakesh and I started digging around in the UNFCCC website just for fun.
Y’know, after all my years in this show, I hadn’t realised that the UNFCCC had a president until I started looking for confirmation of Marrakesh Redux. I suppose there’s always been one and I just didn’t notice, or maybe over the years the structure has become more and more formalised so that now the presidency represents the UNFCCC as a permanent fixture. And if there’s one thing the Paris Agreement has done it is to assure the future of the climate change industry. Promises of funding to the tune of $100 billion a year no doubt help.
Something else I noticed: Marrakesh Redux was an afterthought. The presidency rotates around the UNFCCC world’s five regions and the honour and privilege of hosting the next COP goes along with it. It’s Africa’s turn next and Senegal duly volunteered. This got passed through a few meetings of the administrative subsidiary body without being accepted and then, according to the record, Morocco offered to take on the presidency and was accepted without further ado. I guess ebola and sub-Saharan Islamic insurgencies, not to mention internal instability and poverty, will do that.
A king being president doesn’t seem odd at the UN, given other bizarre goings-on under its banner. Besides, it is explicitly stated that the head of state is supposed to delegate the responsibility to a head of government. In this way the inconvenient truth that the King of Morocco is far from being a constitutional monarch can be ignored. But, as I say, he turns on a fair sort of a do and is therefore clearly a good bloke.
There’s heaps of this sort of stuff floating around in the electronic archives if you have the patience to trawl through the memory banks. I’ll bet it’s all on paper, too, somewhere in Geneva, where the UNFCCC was first based, or Bonn, where it shifted after COP2. The UN building in Geneva used to house – I suppose it still does – a huge print room in its basement, where many forests were sacrificed daily to bureaucratic imperatives.
It was at COP2 (alas, COP1 in Berlin had passed me by) in July 1996 that I was introduced to just how much fun being an international bureaucrat could be. If you are a UN employee you can command a hefty, tax-free US dollar salary, sometimes subsidised accommodation in hell-holes like Geneva, Bonn and New York, hot and cold running assistants (many of them very decorative as well) and a full schedule of conferences in exotic places, flying up the pointy end and staying in 5-star hotels. If you’re from one of those less desirable addresses in the Third World you can work it so you never have to go home, thus avoiding various nasty diseases and military coups.
The work environment in Geneva is grand. I first visited there in 1972 as a tourist and I was gratified to see that it hadn’t changed in a quarter of a century, to the extent anyway that I could remember it. The old League of Nations building and the newer (and just as pompous) UN addition stretch for maybe a mile above a broad swathe of lawn along the shores of Lake Geneva (Leman to the locals). The Alps preside picturesquely over the whole.
In our role as industry observers, my Esteemed Leader and I roamed the length and breadth of this imperious establishment, given that meetings were held at one end and the offices of media organisations, whom we were helping with their understanding of events, were at the other. The long corridors were always thronged with apparatchiks ceaselessly circulating purposefully. Movement was free and easy. I guess I must have carried some kind of ID but I don’t recall any.
That would not be the case today. Indeed it wasn’t much after that halcyon summer of ’96 that photo ID became the norm at COPs, movement was restricted and formalities generally were tightened. I can’t be sure but I think my Esteemed Leader and I might be to blame for this, at least in some part.
Back then, observers from industry carried only limited cachet – the UNFCCC, born out of the Rio Earth Summit of 1992, was supposed to be a greenies’ party, after all – and we were accorded little regard and fewer facilities. Where were we to set up our new-fangled (20 years ago, remember) laptop computers, portable printers and mobile phones? We needed tables and chairs and, most of all, power points. There was a room that we and other industry observers (mostly, though not only, Americans) could use. It turned out to be a smallish space crammed with tables and chairs and not much else. Its main fault, though, was that it was way out of the action – and I have no doubt that was entirely intentional.
So we cast around for somewhere that might be close to meeting rooms and the actual delegates. What about here, asked my Esteemed Leader, pointing to a green-cloth covered table at the side of wide public space affording a clear view of the passing parade. Indeed, why not, especially as, under the carpet by the table, was a live power point.
Our position also happened to be adjacent to the (then small and temporary) UNFCCC PR set-up. Oh dear! Mr Chief PRO was not happy with us. But we dug in and were most comfortable for the whole fortnight. Somehow, this became recognised as our spot and, even when we weren’t there, it was left vacant. I think we even got so trusting that we were able to leave our gear there unattended (might be imagining that).
We repeated this trick at subsequent meetings in Geneva and in Bonn, when the whole carnival moved there, and designed other annoyances such that, as the number of industry observers expanded quickly, the PR people moved to Get These People Under Control. One way of doing this, of course, was to provide better facilities and this they did – the usual trade-off: be good boys and you can have a reward.
By heavens, it was fun though, and you may have noticed this is a word I have used frequently already. These COPs are tremendous fun. Think about it. The UN bureaucrats, most of the national delegations of politicians and bureaucrats and the greenie bureaucrats are all beavering away at saving the world from environmental destruction. Industry observers, in turn, are beavering away at saving the world from the UN bureaucrats etc. What everybody has in common is a sense of higher purpose. They’re on a Mission from Gard.
Thus, when you’re faced with a draft resolution, or some such document, that has many alternatives in its text, every word and punctuation mark is an important catch point and must be fought over to the last dot – and in several languages – rolling with adrenalin-fuelled energy through the meeting rooms, lobbies and corridors, yea unto the very restaurant tables, bars and, often enough, beds frequented by the participants.
You can learn many new and fascinating things at the UN – in the climate change milieu, words like “differentiation”, “additionality” and “modality”; that “ad hoc” can come to mean formal and permanent; that some documents have chapeaus and shoulders; that “annexes” are not just add-ons; that, best of all, other documents are “non-papers”.
Non-papers do not exist and because of that are among the most aggressive weapons in the hands of bureaucrats. You see, if you have a proposal that you really want to pursue but can’t get slotted into the agenda, you produce a non-paper on the subject – for discussion only, you understand, and of course without official standing. If all goes awry, it can be disowned but, handled properly, the non-paper can morph, almost without anyone noticing, into something substantive that undermines and eventually replaces everything else.
You can also see many fascinating people, some of them interesting for entirely the wrong reasons. At that long ago COP2 – apparently expunged from the UNFCCC record, as the website doesn’t go back further than 1997 – one person stood out and that was the German Minister for the Environment. This person performed a tour de force with the media, holding impromptu news conferences in both German and fluent English. I have a strong suspicion the different groups were told different things as everyone seemed to come away satisfied with what they heard. Angela Merkel was brilliant and it was clear she had a big future. I wonder what happened to her.
There’s more, much more. I could go on and on but I suspect that, if anyone is still with me, he or she will be struggling at this point to be having as much fun as I have derived from the UNFCCC. But before I go there is one thing I want to put before you, and that is the wondrous way the UN constructs its resolutions and decisions. These are masterpieces of bureaucratese, designed both to authorise and to obfuscate.
They always start off with a set of clauses establishing the context for what is to come. The decision adopting the Paris Agreement, for example, has a page and a half of this stuff: recalling this, recognising that, acknowledging something else, emphasising and stressing supposed benefits. Every issue that has been raised gets a look-in before the substantive agreement is unfurled, section by section and clause by clause that decides, welcomes and invites various actions for 20 pages before getting to the annex, which is the agreement itself. The annex then starts all over again with another page of recognising, taking account of and noting before getting to the point in a further 10 pages.
This is all good, clean fun and anyone who’s interested in the UN way with words (in six languages) should look it up at http://unfccc.int/documentation/documents/advanced_search/items/6911.php?priref=600008831 . What does it mean? Really? As Humpty Dumpty said in Through the Looking Glass: “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”
And so the Marrakesh Express is standing at the station once more, ready to transport the saviours of the world back to the home of many a hippy pipe dream.