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Podcast / October 12 2021

Inside the Paris Climate Agreement

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On today’s show, we’ll hear from Tom Rivett-Carnac. He was the senior advisor to Christiana Figueres, who led the United Nations’ talks toward the Paris Climate Agreement. Rivett-Carnac shares many stories, including the typo that almost tripped up the whole deal, as well as the power of Buddhism, island nations and editing.


Note: We encourage you to listen to the audio if you are able, as it includes emotion not captured by the transcript. Please check the corresponding audio before using any quotes.


From Foreign Policy and Doha Debates. Welcome to the first episode of The Negotiators. A show about people working to resolve some of the world’s toughest conflicts.


JENN: Each week we’ll feature one person — one unsung hero — telling the story of one dramatic negotiation. It could be a peace agreement or a hostage drama or a gang mediation. We’ll also try to learn some lessons along the way.


JENN: I’m Jenn Williams, one of the deputy editors here at Foreign Policy. I’ve been following conflicts around the world for a long time. How they get resolved and how they don’t. My particular focus is the Middle East, an incredibly dynamic region where, as you know, there’s been a fair amount of conflict going on. But on today’s show, we’re going to hear about the Paris Climate Agreement that was reached in 2015 after a grueling negotiation.

Just think for a second about all the heated debates people wage here in the United States about climate change. Now imagine 195 countries, each with its own problems, its own agendas, all of these countries trying to figure out together how to mitigate the damage from global warming.

One of the people at the center of it all was Tom Rivett-Carnac. He served as the senior adviser to Christiana Figueres, who led the United Nations effort on climate change. You’ve probably never heard of Rivett-Carnac, and that’s no coincidence. The people we’ve interviewed for the show often work behind the scenes, developing trust and maintaining confidence. That’s the nature of this work, and it’s one of the reasons we wanted to make the show — to pull back the curtain and allow listeners to understand what the process entails. All the hard work, the late nights, the creative thinking, the empathy.

So: Tom had never worked for the U.N. before. He starts today’s story by describing how he met Christiana Figueres.

I was running the Carbon Disclosure Project’s New York and United States Division. Carbon Disclosure Project is a not-for-profit that encourages corporations to disclose and subsequently manage their climate-change-related risk. And I’d actually decided to leave that job, and I’d communicated this to the CEO of our organization, a man called Paul Dickinson. And Paul had said to me that he had a friend who was interested in trying to find a critical role for an important process that was going to unfold over the next few years, with no details, and would I be interested? And about three or four days later, I had a phone call from Christiana Figueres. Christiana was very well-known to me. I didn’t know her personally, but as the head of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, as holding overall responsibility for the international negotiation process, she’s kind of the head of the profession of everybody who works on climate change. And she was coming to New York, so she suggested that we meet and that we spend some time talking about what was to come.


TOM: We met in Lower Manhattan and spent an entire day together. We walked all the way through New York — all the way — we had lunch, we walked through the parks, we ended up on the Upper West Side by the evening. And during that time, we talked about the road the world still had to travel. This history of failure of international negotiations; what had gone wrong, how this kind of knot of resentment and anger existed in those negotiations and how difficult it was to overcome it. And by the time we got to this northern part of, of the Upper West Side, she looked at me and she said, “Well, it’s clear to me you have none of the experience necessary for this job, but I think you’d be great. Let’s do it.” So I think Christiana was intrigued by my slightly circuitous path.


TOM: I had wanted to be a Buddhist monk for really as long as I can remember. I know it’s an unusual thing to aspire to as a child, but I felt growing up that I wasn’t in complete control of my mind and it worried me. And so when I finished my undergraduate degree, I went to Southeast Asia, to Burma and to Rangoon, and I found a meditation retreat center with a meditation teacher there and I spent some months and time there. And then I ended up ordaining and spending some years there and then some further years in a monastery in northeast Thailand.


TOM: Now, when you first go into a monastery, it’s kind of awful. Because we, in day to day life, are accustomed to this flow of interesting things — interesting conversations, interesting sensations or experiences or things to eat — whatever it may be. And we distract ourselves all the time with this sort of stimulation. And then when you go into a monastery, all of that stops.


TOM: And you end up with a lot of isolation. Not much happens. And your mind slightly revolts against that and begins to panic and it wants to keep those habits going.


TOM: But if you stay with it and if you stay calm, then after a while — after some weeks and months — then your mind slows down and begins to appreciate much subtler levels of detail about life. And I still treasure memories of time in the monastery when I could look around, unencumbered by busy mental processes, and see just how beautiful this planet is and experience it in a way I never had before. And when you have that type of experience, you can really also observe yourself, and you can learn a great deal about how you work and your own mental and emotional processes that become more obvious to you because you’re quieter.


TOM: So I left the monastery because I felt, even then, that climate was a rapidly unfolding emergency and I wanted to play my part. So this was in the early 2000s, 2002. I did a traditional apprenticeship, and I thought for a while that I would be a woodworker and do woodland crafts and make chairs. And that was my first career. But throughout that process, life kind of led on to way; I had a series of serendipitous meetings, and then that led me into life as a consultant in the private sector and eventually onto the career that I’ve subsequently been very surprised but completely delighted to have.

What Christiana said to me when I — soon after I arrived — was, “Your job is to make the agreement more ambitious and more likely, and you can’t tell anyone you’re going to do it.” So in that context, my role was to pick up where traditional diplomacy failed and to find alternative ways to actually solve the problem. So in that scenario, when there were moments where particular countries would refuse to step up with their national ambition, or they would play a role in the negotiations that was blocking progress from others, my job was to map out how can we help move through that? The way I did that was I looked at individuals and organizations that could encourage leaders to be their best selves and to be their boldest selves at the critical moment.


TOM: So let me give you an example. One of the challenges that we had in the negotiations, obviously, was Russia. And for the longest time, the Russians would refuse to come forward with a nationally determined commitment. And indeed, they would also be quite obstructionist in the negotiations themselves, to try to reach an agreement. Now, how, as a small U.N. agency that has no control over sovereign governments, try to exert some influence over sovereign governments? And the way that we looked at encouraging the Russian state to show up with its best self and its best ability to meet the future was we mapped it out and we actually identified that one of the individuals who could probably help with that was Patriarch Bartholomew, the patriarch of Constantinople.

Now, Patriarch Bartholomew is the head of the Coptic Christians and he’s based in Istanbul. Very powerful religious group; most powerful Christian group in Russia. Happens to be big into climate change. So we found our way to him, we went to see him and we said, “Look, we know that you have big followings in Russia, and we also know that you’re big into climate change. How do you feel about trying to bring those two things together?” And actually, once the dots were joined in his mind, he took it upon himself to speak to the Kremlin. I believe he made three trips to Moscow and met personally with very senior figures, or even with the head of state, and encouraged them to step forward. So that’s just one example. We did hundreds of these, both public and private, to encourage these leaders to actually be their best selves and show up in Paris.


TOM: So for years, the climate negotiations have been beset by this issue of fairness. This is known in negotiating language as “common but differentiated responsibility,” which comes out of the 1992 Rio Protocol. And the idea is that everyone has responsibility to deal with this issue, but some have more responsibility than others.

Now it is a fact that certain countries have created this problem. Countries like my own — the United Kingdom — as well as the U.S., Europe. Countries that industrialized first, and if you look, historically have been responsible for the vast majority of the emissions in the atmosphere. So, in 1992, those developed countries said, “We’ll go first. We’ll take some serious action to reduce emissions, and you do what you can, developing countries.” But what happened was that they didn’t do very much, or they certainly didn’t do enough. And over the years, that concept began to change.

So what the developed countries would then start saying to developing countries — and this was the issue in the run-up to Paris — was they would say, “Look, this has changed. No longer are we creating the majority of the emissions. We’re now seeing the rise of China, the rise of India, South Africa, Brazil, all these other countries. We can’t solve this problem on our own. This now needs to be all of us.” And the developing countries would say to developed countries, “You said you’d sort this out! You said in 1992 that you’d sort this out and you’ve not done anything. So go away and do something serious about this and come back, and then maybe we’ll talk about doing something together.” And the interesting thing about that is both of those positions were right, intellectually. And those two sides would butt heads for years through the climate negotiations in multiple different forms.


TOM: Now, the year before Paris, we were in Lima, Peru, and we were negotiating, and we were having a very difficult time because we knew that that negotiation was critical to lay the groundwork upon which the Paris Agreement was going to rest. And unless we could find a resolution to this concept of common but differentiated responsibility, we were never going to make our way through.

And it was the 11th hour; it was the night before the final text had to be signed off. And there was a soft knock at Christiana’s office door at about midnight. And it was Minister Xie. And Minister Xie is the — Xie Zhenhua — is the longtime Chinese negotiator. He’s back in position now as counterpoint to John Kerry. And he always would turn up at these last minutes and solve these difficult problems. So when he came in, Christiana said, “I’ve been waiting for you, Minister Xie.”

And so he came in and he said to us, “If you want to solve this problem, you need to use the language that we negotiated for the U.S.-China Agreement, and it’s here in this page. And here’s how you find it.” And off he went.

So we immediately, of course, pulled out the U.S.-China Agreement, found that specific passage, inserted it into the draft text, and then had this kind of comical experience of running with that draft text in printed form — because we couldn’t send it to anyone — back and forth across the negotiation hall for the next several hours, checking it with the EU delegation, checking it with the group of 77 negotiating countries, making little changes here and there. That was the breakthrough that finally got us through this concept of common but differentiated responsibility to a new way of seeing a spirit of togetherness in dealing with this issue.

The passage that was relevant is simply that all countries have a responsibility to take action in line with the science in their national interest. So it’s kind of simple at the end of the day. It flips from being a nasty thing that everyone’s trying to get rid of — climate action, which everyone’s like, “No, I don’t want to do it, you do it,” and we got we got stuck in that for a long time — to “Just do what you can, bring what you can, bring your best efforts. If you’re a forest country, commit to keeping your forests. If you are a country with lots of hydro, commit to expanding hydro. Do the bit that’s relevant for you.”

And of course, the big risk for us in this process was if we go to that kind of language, how many national commitments are we actually going to get? Will we just end up with a handful because we have no authority to actually get them to do it? But this was the big lesson that I took and I think many of us took. Once you flip to seeing — instead of the lack and the risk and the downside — to seeing what’s in it for all of us, to seeing what’s possible, to seeing this sense of a kind of determined optimism of a future that can be better, actually what you do is you build a wave of momentum that ultimately crashes over you and delivers an outcome that is better than you could have done if you’d remained all controlling and down in the weeds and trying to control something that can’t be controlled.

So by the time we arrived in Paris, a lot had been done and a lot remained to do. There were still more than a hundred issues under negotiation in different negotiating groups that we knew we would have to land, of varying degrees of importance. Success was far from guaranteed, even at the moment we turned up in Paris.

JENN: You’re listening to The Negotiators, a production of Foreign Policy and Doha Debates. We’ll be right back.


JENN: Welcome back to The Negotiators. I’m Jenn Williams. So it’s November 2015, and Tom Rivett-Carnac is finally headed to Paris for the critical talks. The conference is called COP21. “COP” stands for “Conference of Parties,” as in “the Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change,” and “21” because it was the 21st annual meeting, where almost all of the countries in the world discuss how to cooperate on climate change. OK, Tom picks it up from here.

TOM: One hundred and ninety-five countries trying to reach agreement on any amount of text. The complexity that exists in that process is legion in any situation. So even though we had broad agreement that everybody wanted to do this, there was a range of issues. Like, you know, one critical one was the islands couldn’t accept anything that had a commitment to more than 1.5 degrees of warming because that was a death sentence to them. That meant that their islands were going to go underwater and they were like, “We cannot sign an agreement that is a death sentence.” But lots of other countries were saying at that time, “Even two degrees feels impossible. How on earth can we now sign up to a 1.5 degree agreement?”

Tony deBrum was, at the time, the foreign minister for the Marshall Islands, who was a veteran, and he understood that there would come a moment in the Paris talks where an ambitious outcome would be under threat, and where it was possible that it would slip away from us because that’s what often happens. There are countries that want to water this down, and it’s very easy to put a spanner in the works of a process that ultimately needs to be unanimous and to start drawing people off, casting doubt, creating division. And this all happened around the middle of the Paris negotiations, in the middle weekend.

And Tony, then, put into action the plan that he had been putting in place for some time before that, and that was the creation of what became known as the High Ambition Coalition. This was a coordination of vulnerable countries, small countries, initially — like the small islands, like low-lying countries — that came together and said, “We will form a negotiating group and we will hold each other’s backs. We will protect each other and we will ensure that together, we will create enough momentum and enough energy that will actually take these negotiations through, and refuse to be drawn back by these forces that are trying to slow us.”

And they executed that with such brilliance that they ended up with the United States joining, with India joining, with Brazil joining. And they delivered it with incredible theater. They locked arms — countries that were vulnerable, countries that were wealthy, countries that caused the problem, countries that had done nothing to cause the problem — they locked arms and walked through the negotiating halls together, all of these negotiators that had been on opposite sides of arguments for years, and came in to the negotiation hall to thunderous applause. They created this momentum, they protected each other and they held together at a moment when it could have fallen apart.

In the end, that was resolved very skillfully in the negotiations by saying that we would aim for a temperature rise of well under two degrees with best efforts to 1.5. That was the textual solution to that process.

Now, I should add: All of this happened the day after Christiana and I were in her office and the head of security came into her office and said, “I have to tell you that we have found an explosive device and we found it in the nearby train station.” Don’t forget, this is two weeks after the Bataclan attacks, when so many people were killed in Paris in 2015. And he said, “We found an explosive device. The dogs found it. It was in a bin in the nearby train station.” This is the train station that all the negotiators were using to come in and out of the negotiation hall. “We’ve destroyed it. I need to know if you want the conference to continue or not.”


So we had trust in the security forces. It was Christiana’s decision. I was party, you know, witness to it. But actually, I think about that decision quite a lot because that was a really consequential moment, right? Where, if we had fallen back from that and not gone through, then the chances of us reaching back all of the things I’ve described about the specialness of that moment, the individuals, the determination — it’s very difficult to recreate that, actually. We weren’t sure that we’d get back to that moment and then we’d push through and we’d subsequently reach the Paris Agreement. We didn’t want to be put off track by that. But we stopped using the ministerial car. We started going through the train station, same as everybody else; we didn’t feel it was fair for us to avoid that risk. I didn’t tell my wife, but thankfully, you know, we relied on the security forces and it all turned out well.

The night before the agreement was due to be signed, there were some final textual changes that were being edited and put into the document, and there was one particular clause and it was to do with the provision of climate finance. And the text, as it read, was that developed countries should provide support of climate finance for developing countries. And there was a few comments on that, and the editing teams — I’m not sure how it happened in the end — took the feedback to mean that that word should be changed from “should” to “shall.” Now, “shall” has a very different meaning in an international agreement than “should.” “Should” is, “It would be great if they did it and they should do it.” “Shall” is a legal requirement and necessitates — for example, in the U.S. — Senate approval. And within 20 minutes, John Kerry was at the door, incandescent with rage about the fact that actually this now contained a clause that would make this agreement impossible to sign up to. And the entirety of that day was spent going around different negotiating groups. And Christiana did this, and she went in front of them and she said, “I take personal responsibility for this. This was my team. This is what happened. It was a change” — you know, because of course developing countries wanted this, and this was a moment where they could double down and say, “No, it says ‘shall,’ that’s what we want. We want this.” That would split the — that would split it, and we would go back to where we were before, with developed on one side and developing on the other. Christiana went there, she put her hands up, she said, “This is my team. This is my fault. It’s my error. It is a textual change. I want you to believe that there is nothing — there’s no mal-intent here. You can dig in if you want, but we will lose the agreement if you do.” And nobody stood in the way.


TOM: On the day of the adoption of the agreement, it was delayed, as it always is. And there were a few countries that decided that they were going to hold out. And principal amongst those was Nicaragua. And Nicaragua decided that they had a few problems that they wanted to try and delay the signing, and it ended up delaying things by a very long time. So we were all in the negotiation hall. I was in the front row and everything started to look as though it was going sideways. It was Nicaragua and a couple of other countries that were holding out and refusing to go along with what ultimately had to be a unanimous agreement. I believe the pope put in a call to Nicaragua, which encouraged them that actually this was a moment where they wanted to put the future of humanity ahead of national interest.

Now, the deputy executive secretary had to go through and read textual changes that were put into the agreement that were different from the previous draft, including the “should” and the “shall.” And even though we had actually been round and spoken to all the different negotiating groups and explained to them what was going on, it was still a vulnerable moment. So there was about eight or nine of them. And he did it brilliantly. He put his head down, saying, “There’s a few changes. We missed a comma. There’s this issue here. We’re going to have to change the ‘shall’ to the ‘should.’ There’s another comma missing here.” Handed over to Laurent Fabius, who was the president of the COP, and he said, “Seeing no objection, the Paris Agreement is adopted.” Gaveled it through, and then [LAUGHS] all hell broke loose.

The, uh — [LAUGHS] climate negotiators aren’t necessarily known to exuberant displays of emotion, but it was an amazing moment. I wasn’t necessarily expecting anything like that to happen, but the entire place erupted. Al Gore was laughing and crying, and people really felt like this was really something. This was really the moment when this had happened.

And after the adoption, I still remember President Hollande gave a speech, and — I was always kind of impressed with Hollande throughout this process — and he said this phrase, that this was “la révolution plus belle et plus pacifique”: “the revolution most beautiful and most peaceful,” which I thought was this remarkable moment, that he captured it in its essence like that.

And it was great! We then, we stayed for hours as all the countries spoke, and then we all went to a party in town. And when we came in, this was an enormous dance floor with a band playing, and everybody roared when they saw Christiana and carried her off across the top of the crowd. It was negotiators and ministers and all sorts of people in there. It was — everybody really came together and felt like this was the moment when we’d really done what was required of us.


TOM: I feel like having been a Buddhist monk has changed all parts of my life, actually. I feel like it’s changed all my relationships. I feel like it’s changed so many things, and it’s difficult to kind of pin down exactly in what way, but I think I would describe it like this: When you are quiet in the woods like that for a long period of time, and your own mental processes and your own emotional processes become more evident to you, you find this tiny gap between things happening and you reacting.

To most of us, most of the time, it feels like our reaction is fundamentally connected to what happens around us. Someone shouts at us and we feel frustrated. Someone does something and we immediately have a reaction, good or bad, and we feel like we have very limited control over how we react. One of the things I observed in myself — not that anyone told me, but I observed — was that something happens and then we, ourselves, have a sensation in our bodies and then react to that sensation. And in that reaction there’s a choice. We don’t have to react like that. We can choose to remain calm and equanimous and experience the situation without going down a route of craving more of it or trying to get rid of it. I now live a life where I have children, I live a busy life, all these other things. I’m not saying that I have complete access to that state or to that insight all times. But at the most critical moments of my life, that’s kind of been a superpower for me, because what it’s meant is that at these moments of reaction and chaos, I’ve been able to see what’s happening, understand it, but then chart my own course through it. And that’s been enormously helpful in all elements of my life, particularly in these years of negotiating the Paris Agreement.


JENN: Tom Rivett-Carnac was one of the main negotiators of the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015. He and his former boss, Christiana Figueres, have their own podcast called Outrage and Optimism. They also wrote a book together, called The Future We Choose, with tips on how to save the planet.

It’s worth pointing out that, for all of the celebration after the accord, most countries haven’t been able to meet their Paris targets. In fact, global CO2 emissions have increased almost every year since 2015. So what happened? Well, one shortcoming of the Paris Climate Agreement was the lack of an enforcement mechanism. It’s mandated by the U.N., but countries can basically do what they want. Another difficulty is what Tom describes as the “ratchet mechanism” — basically, the idea that countries are supposed to come up with new climate targets every five years.

TOM: We always knew that the first round of commitments weren’t in line with the long-term goal. But what we thought was that every five years, technology will improve, politics will improve, the understanding of the severity of the science will improve, and we’ll keep coming back to the table and we’ll keep strengthening our commitments and eventually we’ll bring those two lines into balance.

JENN: That table Tom is talking about? This year, it’s in Glasgow, where countries will meet in late October for another U.N. climate change conference: COP26.

TOM: Countries need to come forward with their next nationally determined commitments. Right now, we’re heading for nearly four degrees of warming. The test of Glasgow will be how far down we can pull that trajectory towards the long-term goal out of Paris. Getting it to 1.5 might be too ambitious. Getting it to under two degrees, in my view, would be a success.

JENN: OK, so now we all know what to expect from the conference in Glasgow, and just how complicated these negotiations can be.


JENN: The Negotiators is a production of Foreign Policy and Doha Debates. A bunch of people helped produce today’s show, including Rob Sachs, Rosie Julin, Zamone Perez, Claudia Teti, Japhet Weeks, Jigar Mehta, Amjad Atallah and Dan Ephron. Laura Rosbrow-Telem is the show’s senior producer. Thanks to Nelufar Hedayat, Govinda Clayton and James Wolley for helping create the show with Doha Debates, a production of Qatar Foundation. If you want to help us out, please subscribe on your favorite platform and leave us a review. Next week on the show, you’ll hear about the hard work of ending a decades-long conflict in the Philippines.

WOMAN: The tragedy revolved around a police operation to catch a highly wanted target who had a $100 million prize on his head put by the U.S. government.

JENN: That episode next week on The Negotiators. I’m Jenn Williams.