PARIS — It took almost two weeks for negotiators from 195 countries to finally pass the landmark climate accord this weekend after several espresso-fueled all-nighters and long, passionate debates over the meaning of a single word, such as shall.
But the story of how the deal came together started long before that — in December 2009, with the failure of the last such summit meeting, in Copenhagen.
That gathering was, in hindsight, a case study in how not to do a deal. The hosts of the event had set a stern tone, with concrete barricades, concertina wire, and steel cages to house protesters who stepped out of line.
Connie Hedegaard, Denmark’s minister of climate and energy, was blunt in her approach, putting pressure on all governments to make the political price of being an obstacle so high that no one will pay it, she said at the time.
In the tense final hours, world leaders from a handful of large countries took the negotiations into their own hands, leaving smaller countries fuming. Little emerged from the talks, other than acrimony and suggestions that perhaps such summit meetings were ultimately futile. After Copenhagen, many world leaders believed that the United Nations process would no longer work for tackling climate change, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon of the United Nations said in an interview. It was deeply disappointing. It was painful.
So what changed from Copenhagen to Paris? In short, three things: a fundamental change in the geopolitics of climate change; a shift in the perception of global warming from a distant warning to an immediate threat; and the art of French diplomacy during the event and in the months beforehand to soften the sharp elbows of negotiators and reduce the chances that major points of contention might kill a deal again. In particular, they made sure that each country, regardless of its size or wealth, felt its voice would be heard.
It was a wonderful surprise that after the incredible disappointment of Copenhagen, these 195 countries could come to an agreement more ambitious than anyone imagined, said Jim Yong Kim, the World Bank president, who has been closely engaged in the talks. This never happens.
The talks in Copenhagen were handicapped before they even began, as major countries viewed President Obama with deep skepticism. The reputation of the United States on climate change had suffered because of its decision, under President George W. Bush, to withdraw from the world’s first climate treaty, the Kyoto Protocol.
Americans had historically demanded action from other nations while doing little at home, despite the country’s status as the world’s largest greenhouse-gas polluter through recent decades. And the United States was locked in an impasse with China, the world’s other largest polluter, as each country waited for commitments from the other before acting itself.
Mr. Obama, still early in his first term and having just won the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, promised other world leaders in Copenhagen that all this would change under his administration. He assured them that Congress was on the verge of passing a sweeping new climate change bill, sponsored by Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts.
But Mr. Obama’s pledges won him little credibility. He was treated dismissively by the Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, who sent him progressively lower-level officials for the final negotiations. In the strained closing hours of the conference, Mr. Obama burst into a meeting with Mr. Wen and other leaders, where they worked all night on laptops to hammer out the terms.
Ms. Hedegaard had signaled a few months before the talks began that failure was not an option for the deal. China and other emerging nations must accept it even if it isn’t fair, she said.
But force of will would not carry the day, and the late back-room deal failed to win the consensus required for a legally binding agreement, as a handful of countries, including Venezuela, Bolivia and Cuba, blocked its passage. The rich are destroying the planet, said Hugo Chávez, the Socialist president of Venezuela, during the talks. Perhaps they think they’re going off to another one after they’ve destroyed this one.
Soon after Mr. Obama returned home, Mr. Kerry’s climate change bill failed in the Senate. And for the rest of his first term, Mr. Obama put the issue of climate change on the back burner.
That changed after his re-election. Even Mr. Obama’s own aides were surprised when he told them in early 2013 that he intended to put climate change at the heart of his second term. In his first State of the Union address after his re-election he warned Republicans on climate change, saying, If Congress doesn’t act, I will.
This enraged Republicans and drew criticisms of abuse of executive power. The following year, the Environmental Protection Agency issued aggressive new regulations to cut greenhouse gases from coal-fired power plants. Those rules — which could lead to the shutdown of hundreds of plants and freeze construction of future plants — stand as the most significant action taken by any American president on climate change.
Republicans declared that Mr. Obama was waging a war on coal. But those actions also fundamentally altered the perception of the United States in international climate talks.
It changed the game, said the French climate change envoy, Laurence Tubiana.
China’s views on climate change shifted, as well. The vast expansion of coal-fired power plants that was fueling China’s rapid economic growth was also choking its cities with pollution.
With public anger rising over record levels of toxic smog, Chinese officials began to take steps to curb China’s use of coal.Paying close attention to that shift was Mr. Kerry, now secretary of state. He saw an opportunity to broker a deal, and to try to pave the way toward a broader agreement in Paris.
Throughout 2014, Mr. Kerry held a series of meetings in Beijing focused on climate change. In October 2014, he invited the top Chinese environment official, Yang Jiechi, to a private lunch at the Legal Seafoods restaurant overlooking Boston Harbor. They spoke for three hours about the changes that had already influenced their pollution politics at home and discussed the possibility of turning that into new policy on the world stage.
The next month, Mr. Obama visited Beijing, where he and President Xi Jinping of China announced that they would move forward jointly on plans to reduce their greenhouse gas pollution.
That announcement broke the deadlock that had stalled climate change negotiations for over 20 years.
The following month in Lima, Peru, negotiators wrote a first draft of what would ultimately become the Paris Agreement. In language modeled on the agreement between the United States and China, the Lima pact required every country to submit its own climate change plan before meeting in Paris.
The China announcement changed everything, said Mr. Kerry in an interview. It changed people’s thinking about this. Without the China announcement, you wouldn’t have 184 nations ready to come to Paris, the homework done, the table set.
The planet itself was changing. From the time lawmakers began pushing for climate change policies in the 1980s, the issue had loomed largely as a future existential threat. But in recent years, scientific studies have started to draw a direct link between climate change and certain weather events, such as the 2010 extreme heat wave and forest fires in Russia; crippling droughts in Texas in 2012 and Australia in 2014; flooding in Miami; and storm surges across the Pacific.
Since Copenhagen, there has been a virtual torrent of studies that assess the link between the buildup of greenhouse gases and specific events, said Michael Oppenheimer, a climate scientist at Princeton University. The more real climate change is to the average person, the more real it is to policy makers in terms of making decisions about saving lives and cleaning up after disasters.
All those moments led up to Paris — where elements of French diplomacy helped to seal the deal.
Like Mr. Obama, the French president, François Hollande, wanted to forge a legacy on climate change, and he wanted a landmark accord to bear the name of his capital city. Given the troubled history of climate talks, the host government was widely viewed as playing a crucial role in the outcome. French officials, led by Mr. Hollande, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, and Ms. Tubiana, the climate envoy, wanted to ensure that they avoided the mistakes of the Danes.
In the year leading up to the talks, Ms. Tubiana traveled the world and met with her counterparts long before they arrived for the negotiations. Mr. Fabius, the poised and gracious public broker of the talks, helped smooth out difficulties behind the scenes.
The biggest point of contention was over a push by the United States for an aggressive system to verify that countries were living up to their emissions pledges. China and India argued that outside verification would be too intrusive.
Developing countries insisted that rich countries be required to pay them to adapt to the ravages of climate change. That provision remains in the text, but in a preamble section that is not legally binding.
Unlike the Copenhagen talks that were marked by frequent walkouts, the Paris talks remained on an even keel. Negotiators from over 100 countries repeatedly said that they hoped that at the end of the two weeks, they would reach a deal.
The French were also mindful that tempers flare and decision-making deteriorates when people are hungry and tired. Having released a draft of the agreement on Thursday night — precipitating an all-night negotiating session — the French said they would not release another one until Saturday morning, thus guaranteeing that negotiators would have Friday night to catch up on sleep. And on the brink of releasing that Saturday draft, which turned out to be the final one, the French suddenly called a lunch break.
It was a very specific constellation of events, said Mr. Kim, the World Bank president. This doesn’t happen if the French aren’t working on this for a year. It doesn’t happen if Obama doesn’t spend the time building relations with Xi. It doesn’t happen without the Chinese-U.S. announcement. But it represents the biggest shift we have ever seen on this global crisis.