Update - July 20, 2001

Elliot Diringer, a veteran environmental journalist and a deputy press secretary in the Clinton White House, is now director of international strategies at the Center. This column is being written in cooperation with Grist Magazine.

Friday, 20 Jul 2001

BONN, Germany    After four days of slogging through dense text, clearing away underbrush, and settling some of the simpler issues before them, climate negotiators today got down to the real business at hand. And while no one with any sense would predict the outcome, it was possible for the first time in a long while to detect a few glimmers of hope.

"We're making a little progress. Sneaking forward," a senior Chinese diplomat told me smilingly during a break in negotiations.

On all the key issues -- how much emissions-cutting credit countries can claim for carbon soaked up by soils and trees; whether the international market in emission credits will be free or capped; how rich countries will help poor countries address climate change -- major gaps remained.

But lots of subtle signs (something about the body language, if you will) suggest that this time negotiators would much rather go home with a deal.

The tactics and tone are not like those at the deadlocked talks last fall at The Hague. Negotiators are not throwing up all sorts of procedural objections just to keep the talks from going forward. When ministers took the podium yesterday at the start of the high-level segment of the talks, their speeches focused more on positions, with less of the posturing and vitriol seen in the past.

"Everyone was on very good behavior," said Tom Jacob of DuPont, a veteran observer of climate negotiations. "They were going out of their way not to be offensive while still staking out their positions. There was a remarkable degree of diplomacy."

Diplomacy, of course, is what these gatherings are supposed to be about. But climate change, an issue that literally implicates every nation on earth, poses more than the usual challenges of treaty-making. It calls for near-term action to avert a long-term threat, something difficult enough for one government, let alone 180. Technically, the issues are complex -- frankly, impenetrable to the uninitiated. The economic stakes are high. And the debate is fraught with all the pent-up tensions between the North and the South.

What's more, each delegation must calculate not only how its position will be received by counterparts here, but, perhaps more important, how it plays at home -- how it bears on the next election, the domestic economy, the national budget, and the president's or prime minister's standing in the polls.

So it is no surprise that these affairs are chaotic, unwieldy, and not prone to success. The process itself is mysterious, and often the focus of intense debate. At the outset this morning, the way forward was so unclear that the official printed agenda said simply: "Programme to be determined."

By early afternoon, the parties agreed on how to proceed. They anointed a "small" group of 35 with a set number of seats at the table for each of the negotiating blocs, including the European Union, the Umbrella Group (the U.S., Japan, and other developed countries outside the EU), and the G77, which represents developing countries. For each seat at the table, each bloc was allowed two additional observers.

The plan was for this group to meet behind closed doors, surfacing periodically to report on progress or lack thereof, and leaving thousands of other delegates, observers, and press to mill about, swapping rumors and business cards.

Fossil Fools 
Although the atmosphere inside the talks has been subdued, activists outside have tried to brighten things up.
Photo: Greenpeace.
  

The atmospherics here are somewhat more subdued than at past climate conferences, in part by design. The center of activity is the glitzy Maritim Hotel, where participants must show conference badges and pass through metal detectors in order to enter. Inside, climate junkies hobnob while keeping watch for key delegates who might actually know what's going on. But this time, booths where organizations like mine ordinarily distribute literature and show the flag are not allowed, perhaps to minimize distractions so delegates can stay focused on their work. Police barricades ring the hotel, and vans crammed with bored officers and riot gear are parked at strategic spots.

Press operations are housed several hundred yards away. So are the offices of the many environmental organizations represented here, perhaps to avoid an unseemly spectacle like the one at The Hague, where as the talks collapsed, spokesmen for competing green camps jumped atop tabletops in the conference hall, trying to drown out one another as they spun the press.

The groups can stage their protests -- this morning, a parade of polar bears struggled to unfurl a banner as delegates arrived -- but only from a safe distance.

Back in the Maritim, some delegates suggest that the best possible outcome here is a partial agreement that at least keeps things moving forward. But the hope is that by Sunday night or Monday morning the group of 35 will reach agreement on all the key issues on implementing the Kyoto Protocol. Ministers would then bless the package and head home, leaving their teams to convert the broad outlines into painstaking text. This, in turn, would have to be formally approved, probably at the next round of negotiations this October in Marrakech.

Then countries would ratify the protocol -- President Bush has made clear that the U.S. would not be among them -- and Kyoto would be a real working treaty.

Given how long it's taken negotiators to get not very far, it might seem highly implausible that in a mere 48 hours a grand deal could be struck. But as demonstrated in the final chaotic hours in Kyoto, if everyone really does want to get to yes, it can be done.

That's the optimistic scenario, anyway. Check back to see how things really turn out.