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Deal or no deal: Climate talks down to the wire

The world is closing in on a historic deal to slow global warming.
People attend a climate conference at the U.S. pavilion during the COP21, United Nations Climate Change Conference in Le Bourget, north of Paris, Dec. 10, 2015. (Photo by Christophe Ena/AP)
People attend a climate conference at the U.S. pavilion during the COP21, United Nations Climate Change Conference in Le Bourget, north of Paris, Dec. 10, 2015.

PARIS -- It’s crunch time at the global climate talks. 

The shiny manes and soaring speeches of opening day have been replaced by puffy eyes and swollen tongues. But after another late-night negotiating session, world leaders emerged on Friday semi-triumphant, presenting a near-final draft of the potentially historic agreement. 

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The deal would be the first global accord to slow climate change, but while the world is “extremely close to the finish line,” in the words of French foreign minister Laurent Fabius, the path ahead is lined with the political equivalent of spiked pits and trip wires.

In a sign of the challenges ahead, Fabius admitted Friday that the United Nations summit would spill into at least Saturday morning, following another late-night session. 

Thursday’s session kept U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry up until at least 2:30 a.m., sipping espresso and speaking in French, according to observers. A member of the American negotiating team, meanwhile, told MSNBC that the whole squad has changed their outbound flights to Monday, just to be safe. 

Activists and advocates have also stepped up their efforts, pushing from both the right and left sides of the issue. The official talks are in a custom-built, manically secure complex in a suburb north of Paris, a mini-city equipped to accommodate tens of thousands of visitors, including 3,000 journalists. 

There are bars, coffee shops, a pharmacy, a newsstand and sleeping areas. On “main street,” the official delegations can’t avoid the chants, calls and polar bear costumes of the accredited masses. 

If all goes according to plan, the world will strike a deal this way: On Friday night, high-level delegations will go line-by-line in dozens of “VIP” break rooms, striking compromises where needed. Then, sometime on Saturday morning, Fabius will emerge with a final copy of the negotiated text — and representatives of 195 countries will file into the main hall, which is closed to media. 

Then, at long last, the moment of truth. 

A bit of background: Under the United Nation’s Framework Convention on Climate Change, the world must gather every year to address global warming. The meeting this week in Paris is one of those gatherings, a so-called Conference of Parties. There have been 20 previous COPs, as they’re called, but they’ve never succeeded. In fact, global carbon emissions have jumped 60 percent since the world started discussing the issue. 

There is immense hope that this time will be different, and immense fear that it will end up being more of the same. The answer will come when Fabius distributes translated text in five official languages, including Russian. Under the terms of these UN-run sessions, the text must be ratified by consensus. Not majority. Not plurality. Every country on Earth has to agree. 

From the podium, Fabius will say: “Do we have consensus?” 

This is like the moment at an old fashioned wedding when the priest says “speak now or forever hold your peace.” If the room stays silent, then Fabius will bang the gavel—and the deal is done. 

But a lot stands between Friday afternoon and the gavel clap Saturday morning. In general, the sticking points in the 27-page working draft are all matters of money and long-term goals. Naturally, they’re all tightly related. 

The draft text says that the world will aim to keep the global average temperature rise since the Industrial Revolution “well below” 2 degrees Celsius. That represents progress. The world’s prior goal had been 2 degrees or less, but scientists and low-lying nations succeeded in getting more ambition into the deal. 

After all, the worst effects of climate change — the storms, droughts and heat waves — don’t magically appear at the 2 degree mark. They come and go according to rough probabilities. The more we can keep the warming in check, the more likely we can avoid the worst affects. 

But how do we keep the warming in check? That’s the hard part. The world has already gotten about 1 degree Celsius hotter since the 1880s. And deal or no deal, we’re on pace to blow by that limit in the decades ahead. 

More than 100 countries want to ratchet up the ambition, pushing for a 1.5 degree Celsius limit on warming. But that would require a pair of miracles. First, we’d have to immediately eliminate oil, coal and gas as sources of electricity and fuel. Second, we’d have to quickly figure out a way to cool the planet by safely sucking carbon pollution out of the sky. 

The trouble is, no one knows how to do that despite a lot of trying. 

The second big issue is money. Most of the developing world has already demanded that America – and other rich nations – pay for sea walls and solar panels and all the costs of mitigating climate change. And the richer nations have already agreed: At the last major climate talks in Copenhagen in 2009, Obama himself brokered a deal to help cover these costs – a $100 billion annual fund.

In Paris, however, the demands have gone up. Developing nations are asking for money to help prepare for the ravages of climate change, but also compensation for the lost of lands, property and livelihoods that can’t be saved. To richer countries, that sounds like infinite liability for bad weather. But poorer countries are fighting for survival, not just a slush fund.

Both sides have dug in their heals. 

And then there’s the activists. Many have already declared the Paris agreement a failure and they plan to protest en masse on Saturday. That could get interesting. After an ISIS gun spree in Paris last month, French authorities banned public political gatherings. Some activists learned the hard way. The day before the talks riot police arrested nearly 200 of them in a cloud of tear gas. 

But the protests, they say, must go on. 

“We know that the richest, biggest companies on earth have shown no respect at all, not even for basic truth. They have lied about the consequences of climate change, and they continue to pour hundreds of billions of dollars into searching for more carbon,” a coalition of activists declared in an open letter published Thursday. 

“They are outlaws,” the lettered continued. “We are not.”