What an emotional rollercoaster today was, but in the end the Berlin Wall of climate change separating rich and poor countries was knocked down and the world’s superpower finally and incredibly, in what is likely the most dramatic public foreign policy shift in the nation’s history, stepped into line with the international community’s long march to reconciling man and climate.
After the crisis from the first morning session in which it appeared the G-77 plus China was about to derail the whole two weeks of talks, the Indonesian Environment Minister, Yvo de Boer, the Secretary General of the UN and the President of Indonesia took the podium. The Environment Minister set the tone with a well-prepared heartfelt speech delivered in a kind and focused rather than his disconsolate manner on display at the morning portion of the meeting. The Minister said we are 80-90 per cent there, and then in a huge diplomatic tipping of the hat to China who had expressed frustration at the lack of coordination between Indonesia’s foreign and environment ministers, the physically small man showed how big he actually was, apologizing in front of his President for his chairmanship: “That was not without its faults, and I do apologize for treading on your sensibilities.” He then added, the concurrent meetings this morning was “due to genuine misunderstanding, I beg your understanding and hope to proceed better. Although I am not too young, I am not too old to learn something.”
The Indonesian President and Secretary General then delivered electrifying speeches that both hit me emotionally. The President said, “I have come here at this hour to make a special plea to you…We must make the last mile of this marathon, the most difficult mile. The worst thing is for our human race and planet to crumble because we cannot find the right wording. What we do on this day will have an impact for decades to come.” He closed, “The world is watching, let us not let them down.”
The Secretary General began on a sober note, saying: “I’m disappointed at the level of progress. You have accomplished much in the past few days. But now the hour is late. It’s time to decide. You have in your hands the ability to deliver a successful outcome to the world. The scientific realities affecting our planet demand the highest level of ambition. A few days ago, I said we were at a crossroads: one path leads to a new comprehensive climate change agreement, the other leads to a betrayal of our planet and our children. You are about to take the first step down one of these paths. I hope you take the right path.”
Not satisfied with the Environment Minister’s apology, China asked the Secretariat to explain what had happened. Yvo de Boer turned on his microphone to answer and began to speak before hiding his head in his hands. He shook his head, which was red, in the way that someone with deep dignity reacts when their integrity is attacked. He finally sputtered out, choking back tears naked with emotion: "The Secretariat was not aware there was a meeting taking place,” before swiftly exiting the room.
The room gave him a standing ovation and the Chinese let it rest.
India, Portugal, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Costa Rica, Philippines, Mauritius, and Saudi Arabia raised mostly minor points. Then the main event: Paula Dobriansky, US Undersecretary of Global Affairs, took the floor. She said that she had been heartened with the statements from large developing countries on their willingness to take action on climate change but that she was disappointed that this sentiment was not reflected in an outcome here, before dropping a bomb that kicked off almost unanimous boos and cat calls from the usually staid diplomats: "We cannot accept this text because it represents a significant change in the balance that many of us have worked together for in the past week.”
With the agreement seemingly scuttled, Japan took the floor next, and with his own translator to ensure that no diplomatic niceties of his intervention was lost on the regular UN translator, he supported some of the US sentiment but made it clear that an agreement would be reached: “The President mentioned that climate change is a common responsibility. Japan is 100 per cent in agreement with that statement. We have the expectation and hope that this agreement will make it possible for major emitters to discuss the issue and aim for results. Japan will do its utmost to lead this conference to success.”
South Africa then took the floor: “The science is clear. It is recognized by most of us. The reference by the United States to developing countries not accepting full responsibility is most unwelcome and without any basis. As a matter of fact, we are willing to commit ourselves to measurable, reportable and verifiable mitigation action. We are also willing to agree to [the language around commitments by developed countries] which admittedly we would liked to have seen stronger commitment. We request the US to reconsider.” Thunderous applause.
Brazil then intervened: “We are ready to do measurable, reportable and verifiable mitigation actions, and we ask that those countries with the historical responsibility do the same.”
Jamaica was to speak next, but they didn’t have much to say: “It’s a mistake, button presser.”
Tuvalu who was introduced as Turkmenistan then appealed to delegates: "If you are not comfortable enough to support the text, instead of blocking consensus, please just register your interpretation of it to be included in the report."
Chile echoed Tuvalu: “If delegates have a problem with text, take Tuvalu’s suggestion. Don’t block consensus.”
Uganda appealed to the US to agree to the text noting that the US’ strongest views had been considered. “We would like to beg them that they do accept our position.”
Tanzania spoke next. “I have a superpower on my right (US) and an economic power on my left. I’m almost squeezed. The neighbour to my right has the power to block progress in their hands. The power to wreck progress. Let’s leave Bali having made a footprint for future generations so we can say we were in Bali and we did something great here.”
The next speaker, Papua New Guinea, marked the tipping point, saying to the US in the most direct terms: “If you are not willing to lead, then get out of the way. We want you to lead, we ask you to lead. If you are not willing to lead, leave it to the rest of us. Please get out of the way.” The room shook.
A mere 25 minutes had passed since the US had rejected the agreement. Paula Dobriansky from the US took the floor once again, showing some of the mettle of her famous Ukrainian Patriot father Lev Dobriansky. She said: “We have listened. We are heartened by expressions of firm commitments, especially the major economies. We all will act together. We will go forward and join consensus.” Awe-struck applause.
I could have given Paula a hug right there.
Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists and battle-hardened climate warrior who was standing near the US delegation said to me: “that’s one hell of a shift.”
China as well as a bevy of countries responded with happy welcome, though China’s welcome was a little measured. “Most importantly, we can welcome the US on board, who although is not in the seat of the driver, at last we can begin on our march.”
With that the world’s superpower averted what would have been a disaster in climate governance. Now the long march to finding a way to reconcile billions of people with our precarious climate balance begins at last with the US and big developing countries on board.