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Paris climate countdown: Can diplomats strike a deal?

Right now, diplomats from 195 countries are meeting in Paris in hopes of staving off our much-predicted doom.

PARIS -- This is the year we humans finally get serious about global warming. A lot of people seem to think so. And on Monday diplomats from 195 countries are meeting here in hopes of staving off our much-predicted doom.

But as negotiators enter their second and final week — with a Dec. 11 deadline looming – the talks have stumbled and slowed, exposing deep divides that could undermine a deal. The goal of the conference is an agreement to slow global warming, but the sticking points are serious matters of money and responsibility.

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The developing world — led by India — is demanding that America and other rich nations pay the cost of mitigating climate change. Small, low-lying islands, meanwhile, are demanding money to cover the effects of climate change that can’t be mitigated. And the developed world, led by America, is pushing for a level of verifiable progress that makes China uneasy.  

Worse, the United Nations-arranged process by which the negotiators are working through these issues can make the work of Congress seem intuitive, rational and rapid-fire.

To succeed in Paris, world leaders need to emerge with a legally binding agreement to slash carbon emissions. That’s the stuff that scientists say causes the planet to warm, and sets off a cycle of extreme weather, melting ice, rising oceans, and human suffering on a mind-boggling scale.

But for the Paris agreement to have legal force, all 195 countries must agree on the final text. That means that any country has the power to block a deal. That also means that every country has a voice — no matter how small, poor, or chockablock with oil, coal and gas.

The 21-page draft agreement published Saturday is so far from complete that it’s hard to read. Anything in brackets has yet to be settled, and the vast majority of the official text remains in brackets, including virtually all of the 24 articles that comprise the heart of the agreement.

None of the key political issues have been resolved. The U.S. is the world’s largest all-time contributor global warming, followed by China and the European Union. Meanwhile, many developing nations are struggling to adapt to a warming trend they did very little to create.

So does that mean wealthier countries have a bigger responsibility to make changes? Do they need to fund other nations as they change as well? What about liability? Should the countries most responsible for climate change compensate the countries most affected? And what’s the long-term goal here anyway?

The nations of the world have agreed to hold global warming -- the average global temperature -- to less than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. That requires that we keep total carbon emissions under a trillion tons. But the world has already consumed around two-thirds of this budget and if current trends continue, the last third will be used up within the next few decades.

That means one of the fundamental, if largely unspoken, issues of the Paris talks is who should be allowed to burn what remains of this budget. Should we all get an equal share? Or should richer countries give the budget to poorer countries? After all, shouldn’t the poorer countries be given the chance to get rich on fossil fuels too?

Another fundamental if largely unspoken issue in Paris is what to do with the oil, gas and coal reserves still in the ground. A recent study found that if we burn it all, we’ll warm the planet enough to melt the entire ice sheet that covers Antarctica. That would send sea levels up more than 160 feet, putting large parts of America, Europe, and Asia under water.

The best estimates suggest that we need to leave at least a third of oil, half of gas, and 80% of coal deposits in the ground if we are to keep warming below 3.6 degrees. But the value of all that fossil fuel is in the tens of trillions of dollars, and it’s owned by countries and companies of immense power. How do we determine which reserves are stranded and which are used?

Here’s a taste of how the process of resolving such issues unfolded on Friday, according to official observers.

Droplets of water fall from a melting ice block harvested from Greenland and installed on Place du Pantheon in Paris, France, Dec. 3, 2015 as the World Climate Change Conference 2015 (COP21) continues. (Photo by Benoit Tessier/Reuters)
Droplets of water fall from a melting ice block harvested from Greenland and installed on Place du Pantheon in Paris, France, Dec. 3, 2015 as the World Climate Change Conference 2015 (COP21) continues.

The negotiating teams gathered in a massive complex custom built on an airfield north of Paris. A United Nations official projected a draft of the agreement onto a giant screen, and paragraph-by-paragraph the assembled committees began to work through the text.

After an hour, Daniela Kretz, an accredited student-observer from Germany, started a live post on the process for her class blog. “We’re on paragraph two,” she wrote in a tone of exasperated wonder. “We started on paragraph two.”

The United Nations official tried to pick up the pace but Malaysia objected. “Sometimes you give a forest of words and I get lost in the forest,” the Malaysian delegation complained. Another delegate chimed in: “We would like to come back to the preamble.”

Again, the United Nations official tried to move the room forward. This time oil-rich Venezuela had a comment for its anxious task master: “Chair, I don’t understand why you are so nervous. We are professional diplomats here, trust us!”

“Trust me that I am relaxed,” the U.N. official responded. “But we are under time stress so in that sense, yes I am stressed.”

He pressed some more, hoping to remove some of the bracketed material from the text, a sign of progress toward some kind of consensus. But the work was slow all afternoon.

“I thought that the purpose of this meeting was to delete brackets, but now we are adding them,” the official complained, according to the observer Kretz.  “The last thing we want to do here is unravel all the hard work that has been done here.”

Brazil agreed. “I tend to view brackets as carbon molecules, polluting our text.”

There is still a lot of hope for the Paris talks. More than 150 nations have already submitted plans to cut emissions, reducing projected warming by a full degree if implemented. That alone is historic.

On Saturday, the group reconvened for one more session before the start of high-level sessions on Monday. They also published a new draft of the agreement. It had gotten two pages longer.