Packing the Baggage for Paris

It started on the plane: familiar faces, familiar voices.

“Fancy seeing you here!”

“So, you’re back for another round?”

“Yes, just like Charlie Brown and his football.”

“Are you attending the bilats?”

It’s like an annual in-gathering of a far-flung tribe: delegates headed to the climate change negotiations. Unlike most international treaty negotiations, which involve a few dozen lawyers and topical experts in a boring hotel room somewhere, the climate negotiations have grown into an event unlike any other. There are lawyers, to be sure, and lots of wrangling over legal text; but most of the tens of thousands of people descending on Paris over the next two weeks are not going to debate the niceties of “legal form” (more on that later) or make a plea for one of [should][shall][shall strive to]. They are going because the meetings of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) have become the primary venue for debating humanity’s future.

As a social problem, climate change lacks the immediacy or emotional punch of say, refugees washing up on Greek beaches, or children of color being gunned down by police. It suffers from massive scientific complexity — far more difficult to nail down than the notorious smoking-causes-cancer issue. But its lack of focus also means that it is pervasive: climate change threatens the economy, jobs, agriculture, industry, drinking water supplies; it drives increased levels of violence, social disorder, and social breakdown; it supercharges natural disasters and robs the poor of the few resources they have to respond and recover; it exacerbates inequalities of wealth and power between societies, within societies, and even within families. Addressing climate change successfully will require not only supplanting our civilization’s entire energy infrastructure, which is based on fossil fuels, but also tackling this panoply of issues.

Climate change — in Naomi Klein’s words — changes everything.

So perhaps it is not a surprise that every issue under the sun, from recycling to complex financial schemes to the Falun Gong (OK, I still haven’t figured that connection out yet) is present and visible at these meetings. And because most of these topics don’t fit on the agenda of the 196 nations participating, they spill out — to official side events, to civil society spaces, to the streets, and to the internet. The multiple, parallel-track treaty negotiations are nestled like a watermelon’s seeds within a vast act of political theater in which nation-states, corporations, NGOs, social movements, unaffiliated citizens, and of course the media are trying to shape the narrative — and thereby the world.

All of us — on the plane or not — are players on that stage, and we are the audience, too.

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