A VAST TENT FULL OF SELF SATISFIED WAFFLERS
AT THE GREAT GREEN JUNKET IN PARIS
THIS wasn’t just a historic moment, we were told. This was the defining moment in the story of mankind. D-Day? Waterloo? The Fall of Rome? Mere footnotes compared to this week’s £145 million assembly of world leaders in a giant tent outside Paris.
‘A beacon of hope for the world,’ declared Christiana Figueres of the United Nations, invoking Winston Churchill as she welcomed 150 world leaders to the COP21 climate change summit on which, we are told, the future of our planet depends. ‘Never has a responsibility so great been in the hands of so few,’ she went on.
Well, that’s the Battle of Britain put in its proper place, then.
For hour after hour yesterday and on in to last night, world leaders great and small – plus the Prince of Wales – assured us that we are, indeed, on the threshold of history here. So many have turned up – a record 150 heads of state and government – that they were all limited to three-minute speeches yesterday (without much success, it must be said).
Even then, there was not enough time or space so they were split into two groups and invited to speak in two separate conference chambers at the same time. As a result, one half of the summit wasn’t listening to the other. Not that it mattered much. We got the gist – and no one seemed very interested in what anyone else was saying anyway.
One after the other, they trooped up to a microphone to say their piece and, hopefully, make the television news back home. Here was global politics administered like the Eurovision song contest. It was just as well no one was voting. Boy, were there some wafflers.
None of them actually needed to be here. The organisers had invited delegations to send submissions by email. But no one – except for the world’s top pariahs, President Assad of Syria sand North Korea’s Kim Jongun – wanted to miss this show.
Officially known as the COP 21 Conference (shorthand for the 21st Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change), it could just as well have been called ‘ME 2’.
Trapped inside this vast, fortified canvas palace of self-congratulation, with a staggering 40,000 people preaching to the converted – politicians, bag- carriers, lobbyists, pressure groups and ‘activists’ (including a posse of women who have flown all the way from Australia dressed as guardian angels) – it is easy to feel that this may indeed be the biggest thing since the Resurrection.
BUT then comes a point when a nagging doubt sets in. Perhaps it was the moment Zimbabwe’s despot, Robert Mugabe, shuffled on to the stage yesterday afternoon, blamed everything on the imperialist nations and shuffled off again to a round of applause.
Perhaps it was the moment one of the world’s greatest polluters decided to part company with the messianic mood.
‘This is not the finishing line,’ declared President Xi of China cautiously, ‘but a new starting point’. Oops. It doesn’t sound like he’s feeling the hand of history on his shoulder.
Perhaps it was the memory of the last ‘ greatest moment in history’ when all this lot turned up to save the world in Copenhagen in 2009 and nothing happened.
This time, we are assured, things are different. Ahead of this summit, we kept being reminded by gleeful speakers, nearly all the world’s nations (including all the main ones) have drawn up proposals to cut their carbon emissions in the future. The only trouble is that none of that is legally binding on any country except one. Ours.
While Britain has locked itself in to slashing emissions by a whopping 80 per cent come 2050, the rest of the world is not obliged to do anything of the sort.
China’s strategy for slashing emissions, for example, is to keep on pumping out increasing amounts of pollution for the next 15 years and then slow down after that. Maybe.
Whether or not this summit does live up to its ambitious billing, it is certainly a very impressive space here at Le Bourget exhibition centre on the northern edge of Paris. A giant marquee links a series of exhibition halls, each the size of an Olympic venue, and two conference chambers. Each can accommodate 190 national delegations plus thousands of observers.
It was all a bit of a shambles ahead of yesterday’s opening ceremony. The delegations had been seated in alphabetical order, as they are at the United Nations, but the hosts had done the seating plan in French. So the UK and the US, who sit next to each other at the UN, went in search of the letter U.
But the Americans had been placed under E for Etats-Unis and the Brits found themselves under R for Royaume-Uni – between Romania and Rwanda. As ever, Afghanistan enjoyed seat 1A. The opening ceremony featured speeches from the organisers and also one from the Prince of Wales. He had received a special invitation from the French president in recognition of his long devotion to the subject of climate change.
Like most speakers, the prince prefaced his remarks with words of condolence – in French – for the victims of the recent terrorist attacks. He also added that he was ‘enormement touché’ to be on the stage.
Reverting to English, he went on: ‘ In damaging our climate we become the architects of our own destruction. While the planet can survive the scorching of the earth and the rising of the waters, the human race cannot. The absurd thing is that we know exactly what needs to be done.’ Deploring mankind’s mistreatment of nature, he added: ‘If the planet were a patient, we would have treated her long ago. You, ladies and gentlemen, have the power to put her on life support.’
The speechmaking was remorseless. Glossing over the fact that America never even signed up to environmental articles of faith like the Kyoto Treaty, Barack Obama deftly painted this summit as a riposte to terrorism.
‘We have come to Paris to show our resolve,’ he said, ‘to protect our people, and to uphold the values that keep us strong and keep us free.’
As for climate change, there was the tiniest hint of mea culpa. ‘I’ve come here personally to say the United States not only recognises the problem but is committed to do something about it,’ he said.
Mr Obama’s presence meant that most of the summit was either in the Seine summit chamber or watching it in satellite viewing rooms and not watching parallel proceedings next door in the Loire conference room.
HERE they would have found Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, rambling and muddled but as fiery as ever, as he attacked ‘developed countries’ for not doing more to help poorer nations and seeking to ‘burden us with clearing up the mess they themselves have created’.
Some will have been surprised to see him, given that he is still technically banned from the European Union for assorted human rights abuses. The last time he sneaked into Europe for a summit in Paris, I was among a group of British journalists evicted from his hotel for reporting on an eye-watering shopping spree by his wife, Grace. I hope she is making the most of the retail opportunities while her husband is busy saving the world.
Given that most leaders brazenly ignored the three-minute rule, the waffling was still going strong as thoughts turned to dinner. Hats off to two world leaders who did keep to their allotted time: David Cameron and Vladimir Putin.
Away from the conference chamber, there are plenty of dining opportunities, of course. The hosts have several jumbo restaurants here and heavily discounted menus. You won’t find many joints in town doing a confit de canard like the one the climate change gang can enjoy for £8.
Alongside all the troughing are some extravagant national pavilions. It could be the Ideal Home Exhibition in some quarters.
They may be among the world’s worst polluters but the Indians have the snazziest stand at this summit. It includes an exhibition of India’s space programme (very green, I’m sure) and a fountain which spells out neon-lit words in water jets. Indonesia has golden umbrellas inviting delegates inside a sumptuous suite.
Britain, it must be said, has nothing more than a chipboard cupboard next to the ‘Meditation’ and ‘Relaxation’ rooms.
The latter is full of sofas and comfy chairs – the perfect spot for a kip when you’ve had enough of listening to a prime minister you’ve never heard of from a country you’d be hard pushed to find on the map telling you that he is going to save the world.
Invitation: Prince Charles greeted by French ecology minister Segolene Royal yesterday