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The Planet

Meet the 8 Power Players to Watch at COP21

by Ben Jervey Dana Lo

December 1, 2015

The U.N. climate summit in Paris has so many moving parts—so many events and “side events” and marches and exhibits—it can be tough to remember there are actual negotiations going on. Year after year, delegates from 196 parties gather to work toward a long-term global agreement on climate change. This year, at COP21, world leaders have promised a historic deal.

So how does that deal come to be? And who exactly makes it happen? Here are eight negotiators and diplomats who can make or break a deal. The figures themselves always represent something greater than the individual, and these names were chosen not just for their personalities, but for the country or convention or group of nation states they speak for. 

This is, by practical design, a wildly incomplete list. It could be five times as long and still leave out plenty of essential players at the negotiating tables. But if you get to know these eight individuals, you’ll have a much better handle on what’s really going on at COP21.

Tony de Brum

Though the Maldives formally hold the chair of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), Tony de Brum of the Marshall Islands will likely be their strongest voice. (The Maldives had a great champion in former President Mohamed Nasheed, but he was ousted in a coup, and that’s a different story.) As Foreign Minister of the Marshall Islands, de Brum effectively secured the 2014 Majuro Declaration on Climate Change, bringing almost all Pacific Island nations into alignment on a consensus position.

De Brum has been the lead negotiator for the Marshall Islands to the United States since 1968, and has used diplomacy and law suits to battle for nuclear disarmament and climate action. He is loud, vocal, and passionate, and rallies climate justice activists at the COPs to push rich nations for a more fair and ambitious deal. De Brum has called COP21 a “battle for survival” for the many small island nations that are, every year, losing ground to rising seas.

Need to know more about Tony? Here’s a profile from the Right Livelihood Awards, one of which he received earlier this year.

Christiana Figueres

Christiana Figueres has been heading up the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which runs these negotiations, for the past five years. In a sense, the Costa Rican diplomat’s decades-long career has delivered her to Paris, to helm the ship of COP21 and steer the parties toward a meaningful, ambitious deal.

A longtime voice for Latin America in the climate talks, Figueres is the first UNFCCC executive secretary from a developing country, and knows full well the importance of equity and justice in a global deal.

The daugher of a Costa Rican revolutionary, Figueres isn’t intimidated by the seemingly immovable inertia of a fossil-fueled global economy. “I’m very comfortable with the word ‘revolution,’ ” Figueres told The New Yorker. “In my experience, revolutions have been very positive.”

Want to know more about Figueres? This New Yorker profile is a must-read.
 

Laurent Fabius

For two weeks, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius will serve as the president of COP21, a formal position that demands equal parts political and logistical acumen. Fabius will work closely with Christiana Figueres (see below) to ensure that the COP itself runs smoothly, from the open plenary meetings to the closed-door confabs where deals are struck.

Fabius was something of a “socialist wunderkind” in French politics in the 1980s, appointed to serve as prime minister before the ripe young age of 40. 

Immediately after the terrorist attacks of November 13, Fabius assured the world that the talks “will be held with enhanced security measures, but it is absolutely essential action against climate change and obviously it will take [place].”

Want to hear more of Fabius’s takes on climate? Check out his op-ed in The New York Times.

Carole Dieschbourg

At the moment, Luxembourg holds the presidency of the European Union, and so it falls upon that country’s Minister for Environment, Carole Dieschbourg, to represent all 28 member states in the negotiations. Dieschbourg has spent the past year on the unenviable task of coordinating with all the EU leaders and arriving at a consensus position for the disparate needs and interests within the Union.

Dieschbourg is open about the fact that “some [EU] countries wanted to have an even more ambitious EU position, but they needed to compromise to avoid a logjam and arrive in Paris with an actual mandate. (That process, no doubt, foreshadows even tougher negotiations at COP21). Dieschbourg was able to deliver a mandate that says that global greenhouse gas emissions must peak by 2020, along with EU-wide commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent (from a 1990 benchmark) by 2030.

Want to learn more about Dieschbourg? This interview with the European Green Party is a good place to start.

Todd Stern

The U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change, Todd Stern, has been representing the American position in the UNFCCC since 2009. That year, at his first COP, Stern struggled to gain the trust of foreign counterparts, particularly the lead delegates from China and India.

Since then, however, Stern has been instrumental in securing a number of bilateral climate and energy deals, including landmark agreements with both China and India.

The U.S. position has changed dramatically since his first summit in Copenhagen, and Stern now arrives in Paris armed with legitimate domestic action on climate change. The Obama administration’s commitment to deep emissions cuts through the Clean Power Plan and various efficiency and clean energy measures—and those widely heralded deals with China and India—should help Stern gain credibility and help secure the trust that is essential in any negotiation.

What’s Stern thinking about the prospects in Paris? Listen to this interview with NPR to find out.

Prakash Javadekar

As Environment Minister of India, Javadekar will be representing 17 percent of the global population at COP21. Javadekar, and the Indian delegation as a whole, is known for holding a hard line on the rights of developing countries to industrialize just as rich countries have. Javadekar is known for brash “real talk” about how “developed countries must cut emissions rapidly” and “vacate the carbon space.”

That said, Javadekar has been instrumental in mainstreaming the climate conversation among the rapidly industrializing BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa), and working to unify their positions before arriving at the negotiations. 

Javadekar is particularly passionate about technology transfer, and has all the BRICS rallying around the right to affordable clean tech. “Technology can bring solutions but it has a high intellectual property right cost,” Javadekar told The Times of India. “It can make a difference if technology is provided to the developing world at affordable costs. Climate change is a common problem. The world did this in case of HIV/AIDS. Why can't they do it for climate change?”

What does Javadekar hope for and expect in Paris? Read this interview on the website The Wire  to find out.

Xie Zhenhua

As China’s lead delegate to the UNFCCC since 2007, Xie Zhenhua has commanded the country’s ever-evolving position at the negotiating table. For years, Xie dug in his heels for China to avoid any emissions reduction responsibilities, as was its right as a developing country under the Kyoto Protocol. And, in fact, it was China, even more so than the United States, that bore the mantle of scapegoat after the failed talks in Copenhagen.

However, as years passed and the climate crisis worsened—and as China passed the United States as the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter—Xie’s team has brought ever more constructive and ambitious commitments to the UNFCCC parties.

It was Xie who worked secretly with Stern and Secretary of State Kerry to secure the landmark climate deal between the U.S. and China last year. By most accounts, Xie and Stern have become close over the years, which nobody observing the Copenhagen talks six years ago could have predicted. And it was Xie who forged a rare deal with India, having more success than the United States in securing an emissions commitment from Indian officials.

Xie actually retired earlier this year, but will return to represent China in Paris for one final COP.

Curious where Xie comes from? This Bloomberg profile, though old, paints the portrait of his background. And for the riveting story of how the United States and China arrived at that shocking climate deal, check out this Rolling Stone feature.

Giza Gaspar Martins

As Chair of the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) group, Giza Gaspar Martins represents 48 of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable nations. The veteran diplomat from Angola has been a delegate to the UNFCCC since 2001, and has earned the trust and respect from his counterparts in rich and poor countries alike. While the LDCs lack economic clout, they have an abundance of emotional influence. Gaspar Martins speaks of the moral responsibilities of developed countries to not only cut emissions quickly, but to pay vulnerable countries for the loss and damage caused by the impacts of climate change.

Why does Gaspar Martins work so hard for a fair and just climate deal? Here he is talking to RTCC about the vulnerability of his homeland of Angola.

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Meet the 8 Power Players to Watch at COP21