Will the Paris Climate Deal Save the World?

How the historic U.N. climate deal came together, and where we go from here

The climate talks in France changed everything — but where do we go from here? Credit: Illistration by Victor Juhasz

It will probably be 10 years before anyone can say whether the Paris climate deal, which was agreed to with much hoopla on December 12th, was a historic event that marked the moment when the human race finally got serious about the fight against climate change, or just a United Nations therapy session whose main role was to make us feel better about our headlong plunge toward climate catastrophe.

My bet is that it's a mix of both. The importance of the agreement is hard to overstate. For the first time in history, virtually every nation in the world made voluntary commitments to cut carbon pollution and help vulnerable countries deal with the impacts of climate change. There are plenty of devils in the details, but the larger message was unambiguous: After decades of arguing, fighting and betrayal, the people of the world stood together and said goodbye to fossil fuels. The conference was so full of good feeling that it almost felt like a Coke commercial. Secretary of State John Kerry, who worked as hard on this deal as anyone, believes it will unleash a wave of clean-energy innovation: "If 150 nations are taking it seriously and setting targets, even if they don't make them, that will generate massive investment and a huge amount of private-sector activity," he told me before the conference began. "And then you have to hope that somebody comes up with clean-energy technology, which makes it competitive with fossil fuel, and then, boom, you get your low-carbon economy."

But there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical. For one thing, important aspects of the agreement – including carbon-pollution reductions and promises from rich nations to help poor nations pay for clean-energy technology and climate adaptation measures – are not legally binding. For another, the $100 billion a year that rich nations have committed to help poorer nations is still not enough. Finally, the emissions reductions in the agreement don't add up to much. The explicit goal of the agreement is to keep warming below 2 degrees Celsius (3.7 F), which is the widely agreed-upon threshold for dangerous climate change. But as it stands today, even if all 195 nations make good on their existing commitments (a pipe dream), the planet will still warm by nearly 3 C by the end of the century, which could be enough to drown Miami and turn the American Southwest into the Sahel. The agreement does include an aspirational goal of holding warming to 1.5 C, which would basically require every nation of the world to quit burning fossil fuels by the middle of the century, if not sooner. As one observer in Paris quipped to me, "They may as well agree that all fairies shall ride unicorns too."

However it turns out, Paris was a remarkable moment in the long war against climate change. For nearly 25 years, the U.N. climate negotiations, which began in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, have been a forum for nations to vent, posture, point fingers – and, ultimately, not do much of anything. In 2009, the meeting in Copenhagen was a festival of disorganization and betrayal, ending with an 11th-hour closed-door confrontation between rich and poor nations that only deepened the cynicism among many that the world would ever reach an agreement to cut carbon pollution.

What made it different this time? For one thing, after the debacle in Copenhagen, climate negotiators backed away from the idea of a legally binding treaty that would force nations to cut carbon pollution. In Paris, they tried a potluck approach. Each country came to the conference with its own voluntary commitment – or "Intended Nationally Determined Contributions," in the parlance of the U.N. "The beauty of INDCs is that they harness each nation's self-interest in the service of international climate goals," says Dan Dudek, head of the China program for the Environmental Defense Fund. "It's not what you are forced to do – it's what can you do? And that's a lot more likely to inspire innovation and compliance than some authoritarian regime."

Another big factor was Mother Nature. While climate negotiators have been dithering for two decades, the world has been heating up. Glaciers are melting, droughts more extreme, rainfall more exaggerated. 2015 is likely to be the hottest year on rec-ord. "We are all facing the reality of climate change now," Fu Sha, a member of the Chinese delegation in Paris, said to me. And it's not just climate impacts that were driving negotiators: Sha pointed out that during the Paris conference, air pollution in Beijing was worse than it had been in months. "People are very unhappy about it," she said. "It could have impact on political stability in China, so we need to do something."

The biggest difference in Paris, however, was President Obama's willingness to put time, energy and political muscle into getting a deal done. For decades, the U.S. – which was surpassed by China as the biggest carbon polluter on the planet in 2007 – had been seen as a hypocritical bully, chastising other nations to cut carbon pollution while doing little if anything to address its own fossil-fuel addiction. That changed with Obama, who pushed through aggressive fuel-efficiency standards for vehicles, used his executive authority to pass rules limiting carbon pollution from coal plants, and killed the Keystone pipeline – all of which boosted the credibility of the U.S. in Paris. In addition, he launched an intensive diplomatic mission to find common ground with the Chinese, resulting in a joint agreement last September that resolved many of the thorniest issues between the two nations and extracted a commitment from the Chinese to cap carbon pollution by 2030 and contribute $3 billion in financing to help poor nations.

Yet despite Obama's best efforts and the endless cheery group shots of international heads of state, I saw another reality on the ground in Paris, one that didn't make the front pages: just how dangerously close the entire situation came to falling apart until the very last minute.

In mid-October, climate negotiators met in Bonn, Germany, for the last of the formal meetings before the Paris conference. For those looking for a progressive outcome, it did not look good. "I was concerned," says Todd Stern, a thin, precise man known for his blunt negotiating tactics as the U.S. State Department's lead climate negotiator. What was most worrying was the old divide between the developed and the developing world, which had been codified in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, and had remained a sticking point for years in the negotiations. Basically, it argued that developed-world nations were rich, had caused the problem of climate change, and therefore should solve it. That meant cutting emissions, paying for damages and adaptation in the developing world, and generally carrying the burden for fixing this problem that they caused.

This approach seemed appropriate 20 years ago, but now the world had changed. China was rich and getting richer. Ditto for Brazil and India. President Obama's diplomatic deal with China had gone a long way toward breaking up the old logjam between developed and developing countries about who should pay, and who is responsible. After all, now that China had taken on some of the obligations of a rich nation, it increased the pressure on up-and-coming- developing nations. And getting them into the carbon-cutting and clean-energy-financing game was crucial to having a chance of slowing climate change.

But the U.S. and China's unlikely alliance wasn't the only story. Perhaps the greatest surprise in Paris was that one of the most important players in the negotiations came from one of the world's smallest nations: the Marshall Islands. The Marshall Islands are part of a negotiating block of small island states like Kiribati, the Bahamas and the Maldives. The low-lying islands were among the most vulnerable nations in the world, but they didn't have much economic power – or much weight in the climate talk. In Copenhagen, the main thrust of their negotiating strategy had been to argue that the rich nations of the world should pay them to adapt to climate change, as well as for loss and damages. Given that the wealthy countries were the ones whose carbon pollution was putting the islands' very existence at risk, this wasn't an unreasonable demand. Not surprisingly, the rich nations of the world weren't too receptive.

In the lead up to Paris, Tony de Brum, the foreign minister of the Marshall Islands, and other island leaders decided to take a more sophisticated approach. The Marshall Islands brought in experienced outside advisers to guide them through negotiations and reach out to the media. They also understood that, to be effective, they needed to broaden their message and talk less about money and more about ambition. Most importantly, they needed to help the world see what climate change was doing to vulnerable people.

De Brum, 70, is an ideal carrier for this message. He has a wise, grandfatherly manner about him, with gray hair and glasses that are always slipping down his nose. He had spent years negotiating with U.S. officials over damage from nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands in the 1940s and 1950s. He was also capable of blunt talk. Last year, impatient with the progress of U.S. negotiations, he called for Obama to replace Stern with Michael Bloomberg ("I regret that now," de Brum says). He openly mocked one U.S. official's idea that if the Marshall Islands were destroyed, they could all move to Wyoming. He called the idea of moving away from the island a kind of cultural genocide.

De Brum quietly coordinated building a new coalition for Paris, one that would push for limiting warming to 1.5 C, and zero emissions by midcentury. De Brum felt secrecy was important: He wanted to build alliances before other, less-progressive nations could undermine things. "We understood we could band together, and paint for the world a picture of what climate change is doing," says de Brum. Before long, de Brum and other island leaders noticed strange behavior with their e-mail accounts and assumed they has been hacked. Thereafter, they handwrote all their sensitive communications on paper.

They also discovered that not everyone was concerned about the extermination of a few island nations. At a recent conference convened to outline the Paris agreement, de Brum urged negotiators to build more ambition into the deal, lest it fall far short of what was needed to save places like the Marshall Islands. India's Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar listened, then said, "So what?"

In a deft political move, de Brum responded by saying, "I think what my colleague meant was, 'So what are we going to do about it?'"

When President Obama arrived in Paris at the beginning of the conference, one of the first things he did was lay a white rose at the makeshift memorial outside the Bataclan theater, where 89 people had been killed in a terrorist attack at an Eagles of Death Metal concert on November 13th. The next day, he kicked off the negotiations with President Xi Jinping of China and Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India, who were there among 150 or so other heads of state – but it was only during the second week of the conference, after national leaders had left, that the real horse trading- began. On Sunday night, Stern attended a dinner with de Brum and some other delegates from small island states at Drouant, a hip restaurant near the Paris Opera. Stern sat across from de Brum and next to Enele Sopoaga, the prime minister of Tuvalu, a Pacific island that is already gravely threatened by sea-level rise, and they discussed a number of issues key to both the U.S. and the island nations, including loss and damages. Over a dinner of roasted cod, Stern talked about the need for unity among ambitious countries, while the Colombia negotiator talked about worries of a "G-2 stitch-up" – meaning the widespread fear that the U.S. and China would band together to push a low-ambition agreement, with no room for other countries to have a voice.

A few days later, Kerry announced publicly that the U.S. was joining de Brum's covert coalition – Stern dubbed it "the High Ambition Coalition." Not that this was a surprise to anyone in Paris. After all, Obama had spent time with a small group that included the prime ministers and presidents of Barbados, St. Lucia, Kiribati and the Marshall Islands. "I'm an island boy," Obama reassured them. ("That's when I knew they were going to be OK," de Brum says.) "It was a brilliant move," Al Gore told me. Joining the island coalition not only increased the U.S.'s moral authority but also disarmed a potential bomb in the negotiations. "If the Marshall Islands walked out on the deal because they thought it was too weak, they could have derailed the whole thing," one veteran climate negotiator told me. Joining de Brum's coalition also allowed the U.S. to show concern for small, vulnerable nations, while maintaining a hard line against any language in the agreement that suggested liability for loss and damages related to climate change – a key strategic goal for the U.S.

But as the week rolled on, momentum stalled. To help unstick things, Obama placed a series of calls from Washington, first to Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, then to Prime Minister Modi of India. Finally, at 10:30 p.m. on Thursday, December 10th (Washington, D.C., time), he connected with President Xi of China. According to one White House official, Obama and Xi reaffirmed the details of their joint agreement, and made clear that it was each of their responsibilities to lead other nations. In other words, one of the ways Xi could help was to make sure the Chinese delegation did what it could to bring India along. As the leader of one of the world's biggest polluters, as well as a nation with millions of people living in poverty, Modi was particularly concerned that India not be on the hook for big financial commitments to other developing nations. In addition, India's negotiators argued that if the U.S. and other rich countries wanted India to cut carbon, they owed it to India to hand over patents and intellectual-property rights for the latest clean-energy technology. Not surprisingly, U.S. negotiators balked, explaining, accurately, that patents and intellectual-property rights couldn't be traded like candy.

Despite Obama's calls, by Thursday night, a day before the deadline to finalize the agreement, key negotiations were still moving slowly. The night began with a full meeting of the nations, which got stuck in yet another debate about the differences between developed and developing countries on transparency, ambition and finance. "If we're still holding onto these positions, we have a problem," says James Fletcher, the environment minister for St. Lucia. To help resolve these differences, at about 11 p.m. the French broke into an indaba (a Zulu style of meeting), which was more informal. Kerry had returned to his hotel in central Paris to make a secure call to the White House, but U.S. negotiators summoned him back around midnight for what one of his staffers called "an intervention." Kerry took a seat among the delegates, translation headphones around his neck. After listening to the debate for a while, he said, "I'm troubled by some of what I've been hearing." He pointed out that even if the old divisions between rich and poor nations had been erased in this agreement, there was still clear differentiation on important matters like finance and expectations for emissions reductions. As Kerry argued, the very fact that contributions were voluntarily determined by each nation meant that the agreement was a monument to differentiation. He urged the delegates to keep their eye on the bigger picture. "Don't nitpick this agreement to death," he pleaded.

At 2 a.m., the group again broke into smaller meetings. Nobody had moved their positions much. The Malaysian dele-gate argued that poor countries were still expected to do too much and couldn't be held to long-term carbon-reduction targets, and that coming back every five years to propose more ambitious carbon reductions was too burdensome.

"I got very nervous, because it felt to me like it was their last roll of the dice to try to deliver a very minimalist agreement," says Dean Bialek, an adviser with Independent Diplomat, a consulting firm that was working closely with the Marshall Islands. "We sent messages out to all the progressive countries and got ministers out of offices, and in some cases out of bed, in order to come into the room and make their presences felt and deliver strong messages," Bialek recalls. "I said to the delegates in the room, 'We're not going to be able to accept something that removes all the ambitious elements. We can't go along with last-minute eliminations of things we have been negotiating for many months, if not years. You might say all that is unacceptable to you, but an agreement that is completely devoid of ambition won't be acceptable to us. So this last-minute deletion game is not on.'"

When things finally wrapped up at 5 a.m., members of the U.S. delegation weren't popping champagne corks yet, but they trusted the French would find a way to pull it all together in the next 24 hours.

By early Saturday afternoon, the agreement looked like a done deal. The last sticking point had been the wording on the finance language, and by morning, all the big players had signed off on it. Kerry, Stern and Brian Deese, a senior adviser to Obama, were in the U.S. delegation office, waiting for the final draft of the text to be released. Outside the door, the garbage overflowed with paper, sandwich wrappers and a stack of air-mattress boxes – a tribute to the all-nighters the U.S. delegation had pulled getting this deal together.

At 1:30 p.m., the French diplomatic team released the final text of the agreement. The U.S. team quickly printed it out, and Kerry, Deese and others sat around a table reading it. Stern got to page 21 of the agreement and noticed something was wrong in Article 4, which was a key passage about emissions reductions. The text had previously said that developed nations "should" reduce emissions by whatever amount they had proposed. A key point, because "should" was a suitably ambiguous term. More importantly, it was not a legally binding phrase, and a significant part of the U.S. strategy was built around putting together an agreement with emissions targets that were not legally binding – and therefore didn't have to go before the Senate. Stern and others in the U.S. delegation had discussed this with Xie Zhenhua, the top Chinese official at the conference who agreed with it, and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who was in charge of the negotiations, had seen it as well. "There was never a particle of doubt about the phrasing of that sentence," Stern told me.

But in reading the final text, Stern noticed that the sentence had been entirely rephrased, with the key word "should" replaced with the more definitive word "shall." For the U.S., the difference between "shall" and "should" was the difference between a deal they could accept and one they could not. "It obviously was not a typo," a U.S. official told me. Kerry immediately got on the phone with Fabius, who reacted with genuine surprise, assuring him that it had to be a mistake and that he would look into it. For the next few hours, Kerry and the rest of the U.S. delegation were anxious and concerned.

What had happened? No one thought that Fabius or anyone around him was playing games. But it was well-known that many developing nations who felt pushed around by the U.S. also thought the phrase "should" was too weak. Was this an attempt at sabotage by someone who wanted to see the whole agreement brought down? The Saudis, who were expert at throwing a monkey wrench into things, were certainly one possibility. Another was one of the left-leaning Latin nations like Bolivia who thought the U.S. was getting off too easy on financial commitments. Or even the Russians, who had been very quiet during the entire negotiations.

Nobody on the U.S. team knew (they insist they still don't). Nor did they know how it had happened. Had the computers used to draft the agreement been hacked? Or had someone on the French drafting team accidentally cut-and-paste the wrong piece of text? If Stern had not noticed the change, an agreement might have been passed that the U.S. could not support – or at least one that the U.S. would have had to use lots of diplomatic muscle to change at the very last minute. Either way, it was not the happy ending the U.S. delegation – or President Obama, for that matter – was looking for.

A few hours later, Kerry, Deese and Stern walked into the main plenary room, where roughly 2,000 people from around the world had gathered in anticipation of the historic passage of the climate agreement. "We were not sure what we would find," Deese recalls. It was clear that many other countries had not heard about this yet, and when they did, some were unsettled. "You could see countries starting to talk among themselves," one State Department official says. "You could see more countries starting to open up text. Other parties coming over with hand-printed copies of the text. It was starting to go viral." Even if the U.S. delegation suspected that the change in the text was no accident, they decided not to press the issue. What was important was closing the deal. Kerry, Deese and Stern worked the room, huddling with delegates from key countries like India, China and South Africa, assuring them that, whatever had happened, the French were going to fix it. The U.S. delegation feared that if some nation challenged the word change during the plenary session, others would jump in with other grievances- and the whole agreement would unravel. And indeed it started to happen. "I saw the Malaysian negotiator go over to the China desk and say, 'Look, are we going to oppose this?'" a delegate for a small island state recalls. "But Su Wei, China's lead negotiator, very clearly said to him, 'Just sit down and keep quiet. This is going through.'"

But it wasn't quite over. Paul Oquist, head of the Nicaraguan delegation, was up in the front of the room, talking with Fabius and other French officials, insisting that he wanted to use this opportunity to bring up broader criticisms of the agreement. The Russians and the Cubans tried to talk him out of it, and Kerry got on the phone to Nicaragua, eventually reaching the first lady, urging her to communicate to Oquist that holding up the conference was not a good idea.

After about a half hour, Fabius had had enough. He abruptly broke off conversation with the Nicaraguan delegation, then jumped up onstage, where he was flanked by President François Hollande and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. He did some quick work to pass off the shall/should fiasco as a mistake in the text, then moved quickly to adopt the agreement. "I see the room, I see the reaction is positive, I hear no objection," he announced, then slammed down his green gavel. "The Paris climate accord is adopted," he declared just after 7 p.m. The man standing next to me, a delegate from the Maldives whom I had never spoken to, grabbed me and hugged me. His eyes were wet with tears.

The adoption of the Paris accord was a powerful moment. Sadly, as everyone in the room that night knew, climate change is not a problem that can be solved with the slam of a gavel. "Paris worked in part because of a big deadline and conspicuous failures from not meeting it," says David Victor, a professor of international relations at the University of California, San Diego. "Now we are in a murky zone with huge lists of difficult things to do. And few really robust deadlines."

Before it can enter legal force, the agreement will need to be formally ratified by 55 nations. That won't be a problem in the U.S. – because of the way the agreement is structured, President Obama can sign off on it without submitting it to the Senate. But it will likely take a year or longer for other nations to formalize the agreement. Meanwhile, there is still a lot of detail work to do regarding the rules on complex issues like how emissions will actually be monitored and verified. But the real threat to the agreement is not procedural but political: "The most critical question is how to sustain political momentum," says the Environmental Defense Fund's Dan Dudek. "As governments change, how can the will to implement INDCs be mustered over successive administrations? This is the real global governance issue."

There is also the issue of U.S. leadership. This deal came together largely because of the drive and political skill of President Obama and Secretary Kerry, and it happened to coincide with the rise in prosperity in China, which gave the nation the money and temperament to address this problem. But in the long term, U.S. leadership on climate is questionable, largely because half of Congress is bought off by the fossil-fuel industry and won't let stronger action on climate change through.

Lest anyone in Paris forget that dinosaurs still roam in the halls of Congress, during the conference, the Heartland Institute – a U.S. think tank with ties to the Koch brothers that is home base for climate deniers – held a conference at a hotel near the center of Paris that advanced all the old arguments that climate change was just a tree-hugger fantasy. And back in Washington, the House science committee held hearings to question the science and economics of climate change. The hearing featured the rhetorical sleight-of-hand of Bjørn Lomborg, a well-known Danish economist who argued that the Paris climate agreement, even if all INDCs were fully accounted for, would lower the Earth's temperature by the end of the century only 0.306 C, so why bother?

Thanks largely to the dysfunctional state of climate politics in America, it is even questionable whether the U.S. can fulfill the obligations it made in Paris, much less ratchet them up in years to come. And one or two terms of a Denier-in-Chief could derail American leadership on this issue. China, of course, could emerge as the deal-maker in future negotiations, but China is not exactly known for its good governance practices, nor for altruistic thinking about the greater good of the planet.

In the end, the most striking thing about the Paris agreement may be the degree to which it bets the future of civilization on individual actions. The summit was not about the establishment of a global carbon police force – it was an attempt to write the rules so that people are inspired to go out and fix the problem on their own, either as individuals or as nations, and to lend a hand (or a dollar) to others who are less fortunate. And depending on your view of human nature, that may be the most risky bet of all.