Why Are World Leaders Calling Paris a “First Step” After 21 Years of Climate Negotiations?

Approximately 150 world leaders pose for a family picture during the COP21, the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris on Nov. 30, 2015. The U.N. called it the biggest gathering of world leaders in history.

Photo by Martin BureauAFP/Getty Images

The Paris climate summit officially got underway Monday with a gathering of about 150 world leaders—perhaps the largest meeting of heads of state in history outside the U.N. headquarters.

After a photo op to mark the occasion, the first day was largely devoted to a series of speeches from leaders pleading with other leaders to take action. With so many heads of state gathered in one small space, it made for some tense moments in the hallways, and leaders frequently ran well past their allotted three minutes—President Obama’s speech, for example, clocked in at 13 minutes and 55 seconds.

Many of the kickoff speeches hit on a refrain that became depressingly common during the monthslong runup to the Paris climate meetings. For instance, Chinese President Xi Jinping said, “The Paris conference is not the finish line but a new starting point.” The New York Times even used the sentiment as its headline on Monday: “Paris Deal Would Herald an Important First Step on Climate Change.”

To be absolutely clear, Paris is no first step. This is the 21st year of global climate negotiations—that’s why it’s called COP21—and that long journey has been marred by agonizingly slow progress until just recently. Keep this basic fact in mind over the next several days when you hear anyone claim “success” is imminent.

A better way to frame the talks is as a long-overdue potential “turning point,” like Obama did during his address to the delegates on Monday.

“There is such a thing as being too late,” said Obama, quoting Martin Luther King Jr. “That hour is almost upon us.”

Obama got one particular part exactly right: None of the leaders assembled in Paris will likely ever live to see a world in which global temperature has stabilized. That’s because basic physics is at odds with basic political calculus in modern democracies—there’s an inherent lag in the planet’s climate system that locks in the effect of current emissions for decades. If you’re worried about short-term economic growth, climate change just doesn’t seem like a priority, even if it is an existential risk. Hence, 21 years of climate talks without even leaving the starting gate.

Obama summed this challenge up nicely and framed it as a call to action:

My fellow leaders, accepting this challenge will not reward us with moments of victory that are clear or quick. … That’s what’s always made this so hard. Our generation may not even live to see the full realization of what we do here, but the knowledge that the next generation will be better off for what we do here, can we imagine a more worthy reward than that?

The leaders and their delegations will spend the better part of the next two weeks wading through a sea of jargon in an effort to hammer out the most ambitious international agreement ever attempted. A fresh analysis released Monday by policy analysts at Climate Interactive, shows that the global economy would likely avoid climate disaster if the delegates embrace a so-called “ratchet mechanism” that would commit countries to a series of ever-tightening five-year carbon-cutting targets. Still, such an agreement wouldn’t be legally binding and would leave ultra-important issues—like the fate of the oceans—to follow-on agreements. If we let history be our guide, a more likely scenario is that the delegates in Paris will kick the can down the road yet again.

For residents of vulnerable countries and the activists that speak on their behalf, that’s just not good enough.

Over the weekend, activists in thousands of cities around the world joined together to show their support for ambitious action on climate change. A Reuters report called the global network of marches and demonstrations “perhaps the biggest day of climate action in history.”

In Paris, one major protest turned violent on Sunday as anarchists infiltrated a peaceful “human chain” that drew an estimated 10,000 participants in defiance of an emergency ban on large outdoor gatherings that was instituted after the terrorist attacks there earlier this month. More than 200 people were detained, and police used tear gas to clear the area. Prior to the clash, French officials had used emergency powers to place at least two dozen climate activists under house arrest out of concern they may incite violent protests.

In a statement to Slate, activist Naomi Klein, a key force behind the burst of activism, applauded the fact that so many turned out in Paris despite the official government ban:

What I saw [Sunday] was Parisians ready to take back their city from fear. In multiple ways, people defied attempts to sweep away dissent and insisted on their right to protest, assemble and disagree passionately with their governments. Even if one does not agree with every action that took place, this general atmosphere of defiance is something to celebrate. After all, government response to the climate crisis is wholly inadequate and puts us all in great danger. Obedience in the face of this failure would be tantamount to acquiescence.

The largest gatherings this weekend were in London and Melbourne, Australia, which each drew around 50,000 participants. In Sydney, protesters held placards saying “There is no Planet B.” Globally, more than 700,000 people participated around the world—including one demonstration in Sanaa, Yemen, despite bombs falling nearby.