Behind the Scenes at the Paris Climate Conference

Two Fletcher Ph.D.s helped deliver the deal that just might save humanity from itself
meeting at Paris climate change conference
With just hours to go until his deadline, negotiating co-chair Daniel Reifsnyder, F14, thought the chances for a deal seemed slim. Here, a meeting at the climate change conference. Photo: UN/Eskinder Debebe
July 12, 2016

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Daniel Reifsnyder sat at the center of a wide dais in a cavernous former airplane hangar, his image projected onto four giant screens above hundreds of diplomats from around the globe. It was early December, and the officials had gathered in France, a country still reeling from terrorist attacks just three weeks before, with the hope of crafting the first climate change agreement to involve all the nations of the world.

For the past year, Reifsnyder, F14, a U.S. diplomat, had been co-chairing the negotiations leading up to this United Nations conference, which was the result of a 2011 U.N. commitment to reach a universal climate deal by 2015. As the summit drew nearer, it was common to hear it described as our last best chance to save ourselves from an apocalyptic future of our own making. “Never have the stakes of an international meeting been so high,” French President Francois Hollande said at the conference’s opening plenary, “since what is at stake is the future of the planet, the future of life.”

To protect the future of life, and to avoid devastating floods, droughts, food and water shortages, and destructive storms caused by climate change, scientists reckon that we’ll need to keep the increase in our steadily rising global temperature to just 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, above the average from the late 19th century. That will require drastically reducing our carbon emissions. Agreeing on how, exactly, to do that was the job of the diplomats at this conference.

Unfortunately, saving ourselves from ourselves is hardly assured. Recent history is riddled with unsuccessful attempts to get the countries of the world to make climate deals or stick to them. For more than two decades, the U.N. has been holding annual climate talks, which have produced mixed results.

Little wonder, then, that many observers were skeptical about the prospects for the Paris conference. A Washington Post editorial published the day the talks opened predicted that the negotiations would fail to “produce a specific plan to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius.” Instead, the editorial declared, the conference should be considered a success if it merely bent “the global greenhouse emissions curve downward” and pressed countries to do better.

Still, the recent history of international climate negotiations hasn’t been all bad. In fact, one very important success in 2014 set up the potential for a landmark agreement. A full year before the Paris conference began, China, the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter, and the United States, the second largest, pledged to cut their emissions. That ability to find common ground after years of “you-first” squabbling helped inspire 184 other nations to submit their own voluntary emissions reduction plans for the Paris talks.

Mid-Flight Adjustment

Daniel Reifsnyder spent a year co-chairing the negotiations that led up to the Paris climate conference. Photo: Matt TeutenReifsnyder, who is deputy assistant secretary for environment in the U.S. State Department, and his co-chair, the Algerian diplomat Ahmed Djoghlaf, had spent the past year leading a group charged with creating a draft document to serve as the foundation for any accord that would come out of the Paris talks.

Reifsnyder and Djoghlaf had picked up the group’s negotiations, which stretched over four years, from the previous year’s co-chairs, which Djoghlaf likened to a new airplane crew taking over in the middle of a trans-Atlantic flight, without detailed instructions on what course to take. That may not sound like a good idea, but it is standard protocol for the United Nations.

In the months ahead of the Paris conference, the process to produce the draft document at times seemed to be moving backward. Debates about how to proceed ate up hours, and the draft text shrank from nearly 90 pages in the summer to approximately 20 pages—when the co-chairs offered their own rather controversial version—until acrimonious negotiations in October sent it ballooning back to 55 pages, with nearly 1,500 passages set off in brackets, meaning that there were unresolved issues with them.

When the two-week talks in Paris began, Reifsnyder and Djoghlaf had just six days left to complete the draft document. After that, the text would be handed over to the president of the conference, the French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who would attempt to produce a climate deal during the gathering’s final week.

Any accord that came out of Paris was going to have to be accepted unanimously, so Reifsnyder and Djoghlaf had been working from morning to night trying to address as many of the outstanding issues as possible to make it easier to reach a deal. But as the week they’d been given neared its end, those who’d predicted trouble in Paris were looking like they knew what they were talking about. On Friday, the day before their deadline, Djoghlaf had spent hours trying to help delegates resolve their remaining disagreements, but had made no progress.

Still, Reifsnyder seemed calm as he sat on the dais on the final day to produce the document. In a few hours, he and Djoghlaf were scheduled to hand off the text. The French hosts would then lead the final push to try to reach an agreement over the next week, with the help of national foreign ministers, environment ministers and other high-level negotiators, including U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

Reifsnyder and Djoghlaf had decided to make no changes to the document, which was still riddled with bracketed sections that remained unresolved. Instead, they added a “reflection note” listing all the objections that remained from the previous afternoon. “If there is anything in the reflection note that is inaccurate, that doesn’t reflect what you said, or if there is anything not in the reflection note that you feel absolutely has to be in that reflection note, please submit it to us today, if you can by 1 o’clock,” Reifsnyder told the members of the group. The deadline was just an hour away, but he assured the delegates that every concern would be included in the final document.

From there, Reifsnyder got an earful. First up was a delegate from China who questioned the document’s title. Calling it the “draft Paris agreement” was presumptuous, he insisted, since there was no guarantee of an agreement at all. Delegates from Saudi Arabia, India, West Timor and Kuwait expressed concerns about items left out of the reflection note. In a businesslike tone, Reifsnyder reiterated that all their points would be incorporated in the final version. For the title he suggested “draft Paris outcome” instead, and the delegates approved. The gavel went down.

The text, messy as it was, would be forwarded to the French. It included a lot of bracketed passages, but from what Reifsnyder could tell, the French team leading the final week of negotiations was pleased with the document. “You can see within it the emerging agreement,” he said. “Now it’s going to take will on the part of parties to get there. There’s a lot of stuff that’s going to have to fall away. But you can see a deal.”

Testing Out Negotiations

The mood in the room wasn’t exactly panic, but few at the conference were feeling entirely optimistic about the prospects for a deal. Kelly Sims Gallagher, an associate professor of energy and environmental policy at the Fletcher School who has been involved in climate change negotiations since the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, said at one point, “I don’t think there’s going to be an agreement. The text is in terrible shape. I don’t see how they’ll get from here to there.”

“We need to start thinking about a more flexible approach,” says Kelly Sims Gallagher. “This has already taken too long. How do we move things faster?” Photo: Matthew ModoonoGallagher, F00, F03, had been instrumental in securing the landmark 2014 U.S.-China climate deal. She spent a year off from Fletcher working in the Obama administration to help develop the agreement on emissions and a new U.S.-led public-private partnership to help poorer nations cope with the changing climate.

Each year, Gallagher teaches a Fletcher class on climate change and clean energy policy, which includes a simulation of climate negotiations. Ahead of the Paris conference, her students conducted a simulation of the coming talks, using the actual draft text that Reifsnyder had been working on. Playing the roles of Reifsnyder and Djoghlaf were Lisa Tessier, F16, from France, and Tarun Gopalakrishnan, F16, from India.

Over two class sessions devoted to the simulation, they had no luck coming up with a deal that their fellow students, portraying diplomats from around the world, would agree to. In fact, they made less progress than any of Gallagher’s previous classes. The barriers to the students reaching an accord included everything from the text itself to intransigent negotiators blocking compromise. Their experience, Gallagher noted, was just like that of real U.N. negotiators. “Maybe this reflects what we should expect,” she said of the upcoming conference.

About a month before the start of the Paris talks, Gallagher invited Reifsnyder, whom she first met at a U.N. climate conference more than 15 years ago, to return to the Tufts campus to discuss the negotiations with her students. Sitting at the head of a wooden table in the Murrow Room, Reifsnyder described his rather unusual career path. Although he’s 65 and graying at the temples, his round face and easy smile make him seem still boyish.

A lawyer, he started out focusing on federal fisheries regulations for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, followed by bilateral science and technology agreements for the State Department. In 1989, he started working on U.S. climate change policy, an assignment that he assumed would be short term. Nearly three decades later, he was still at it. He earned his doctorate from Fletcher in 2014, taking six months off from his State Department post to finish his dissertation.

Reifsnyder told the students that, during the George H.W. Bush presidency, it was his job to promote the administration’s belief that “targets and timetables don’t reduce greenhouse gas emissions, policies and measures do.” But when Bill Clinton and Al Gore were elected in 1992, their focus was on targets and timetables. “I was out there saying, ‘Focusing on policies and measures is a fool’s errand. We need targets and timetables.’”

Meanwhile, Back in Paris

Across town from the climate talks, Gallagher was welcoming the arriving guests at a brunch she and the Tufts economics professor Gilbert Metcalf had organized at a hotel in Montmartre, the northern Paris district known for its nightclubs and white-domed basilica on a hill. Gallagher greeted the brunch attendees like old friends, appropriate since most of them were. It wasn’t long, though, before she got to business.

Gallagher and Metcalf had invited these 30 or so leading thinkers—people like Jim Skea, co-chair of the mitigation working group of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and Zou Ji, deputy director of China’s National Center for Climate Change Strategy and International Cooperation—to discuss the research questions that should be tackled after the Paris conference, whatever its outcome, to help policymakers working on climate change.

Gallagher and four of her students were planning to write a paper on the research needs identified at the brunch, and she ran the gathering like a graduate seminar. The conversation danced from topic to topic: How can we speed up access to clean energy for the poor? Can public dollars be leveraged to spur even greater private investment in sustainability? Which incentives would inspire nations and businesses to reduce carbon emissions faster? Are government climate policies effective?

After the brunch ended, Gallagher headed out with a participant from China. They talked for hours, walking the hills of Montmartre, before Gallagher strolled to her final commitment of the day, a gathering of Tufts alumni, many of whom were attending the climate summit. Arriving at the event, Gallagher checked her Fitbit: nearly 16,000 steps, or about 7.5 miles. “No wonder I’m tired,” she said.

At the alumni gathering, much of the talk focused on the climate conference. “We’ll have an agreement,” predicted Metcalf, a former deputy assistant secretary for environment and energy at the U.S. Department of Treasury who participated in the 2011 climate change negotiations that led to the Paris conference. “It just won’t be terribly ambitious.”

Gallagher disagreed, saying it was unlikely that there would be a deal, but clarified, “I’m not saying that’s what I want.” When someone offered to bet her $1 that there would be an agreement, she readily shook his hand.

Gallagher wound up losing her bet, of course. Seven days after Reifsnyder’s handoff of the draft text, 195 countries and the European Union signed a historic agreement in Paris. As expected, the deal aimed to lower greenhouse gas emissions and stave off the worst consequences of climate change. But it surprised many by setting an ambitious new long-term goal: to keep global warming “well below” 2 degrees Celsius and to “pursue efforts” to limit it to 1.5 degrees Celsius. The parties even agreed to negotiate more ambitious plans every five years, and wealthy countries pledged to help pay for poorer countries to reduce their emissions and adapt to climate change.

Since its approval, the accord has been alternately characterized as both a success that marks a new beginning and a failure that doesn’t do nearly enough to address climate change. For her part, Gallagher was glad there was any deal at all.

A month after the conference ended, she participated in a panel discussion in a Fletcher lecture hall to analyze the agreement. “I was kind of dreading Paris,” she told the 30 or so students and Fletcher staff in attendance. “Maybe because my expectations were so low, it was a wonderful surprise to see how much progress they made.”

A few factors made the agreement possible, Gallagher said, including the landmark U.S.-China accord a year earlier and the skillful diplomacy of the French. And although it frustrated many parties, she said, the decision by Reifsnyder and his co-chair to slim down the draft text in the early fall also contributed to the conference’s ultimate success. That shortened version gave the French a preview of what might be accomplished, even though some negotiators rejected it, she said.

Still, Gallagher said that the deal glossed over many important details, particularly the specific policies by which global temperatures will be reined in. Much work remains to be done, she said, which is why she is launching the new international Climate Policy Lab at Fletcher. The U.N. process “takes almost forever,” she said. “We need to start thinking about a more flexible approach. This has already taken too long. How do we move things faster?”

Heather Stephenson can be reached at heather.stephenson@tufts.edu.

A version of this story first appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of Fletcher Magazine.