Paris Climate Talks Are Like a 'Stupid Business Conference' for Saving the World

Reporter Jonathan M. Katz talks about what it's like covering the COP21.

Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

Negotiations at the COP21 climate change talks in Paris have pushed into the weekend, and the conference chair, Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister, says he’s “sure” that the draft agreement he plans to present to the world at 8 a.m. GMT Saturday will be approved.

If you’re interested in learning more about what the agreement is going to look like, we’ve written explainers on some of the big questions and how things are looking as the talks come down to the wire.

But for all the mountains of reporting that have come out of Paris over the past two weeks, no one has explained what the conference actually looks like — the sense of sitting in the middle of the most anticipated diplomatic negotiations in the history of the planet.

So Inverse caught up with Jonathan M. Katz, who’s reporting from the conference for The New Republic, to hear his take.

On what the conference actually looks like:

“It’s like if you had a business conference in Milwaukee but instead of holding it in Milwaukee they held it at Epcot and on the first day the president of every country in the world came,” he explains. “But then they all left, and you were at Epcot, but it was still just your stupid business conference, except the thing that your business conference is supposed to do is save the world.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon poses prior a press conference at COP21 on December 5, 2015 in Paris, France.

Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

“Everybody has a stupid name tag, and there’s weird convention slang and people know each other from other conventions and they see each other and they’re like, ‘Hey, Bob, It’s been so long, how have you been? Blah blah blah. How are the kids?’ And then everybody has their favorite places to eat, and the place where the line is too long, and then it’s just got this whole Disney World, Epcot feel to it.

“Since it’s 1 in the morning, I’m going to complain to you about this: The fucking name tags at this thing — they printed these name tags with the letters so small, you can be standing next to somebody with your face in their stomach and you can’t read their fucking name. And it’s so fucking irritating. I don’t know if they thought they were saving ink or something, but as a journalist I’m standing there and I’m trying to get people’s names, and they’re wearing a fucking name tag and still have to be like, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t know who you are. Who are you?’ It’s like, ‘Oh, yes, you’re one of my major sources that I just have never met in person before.’ Or like, ‘Oh yeah, you’re the crown prince of whatever.’”

On being stuck at a stupid business conference in a generic expo center in a suburb of Paris:

“I think a lot of people have not even gotten the chance to [check out Paris] much, and I can’t imagine what’s going on in their brains.

“There were guys from Antigua and Barbuda on the train on the way home today, and they were all wearing their government-issued Antigua and Barbuda winter hats, that the Antiguan government had given them as part of their emergency kit. Because it was fucking cold.

Former Mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg and Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo pose with a thousand mayors from different cities at the Paris city hall on December 4, 2015 in Paris, France.

Thierry Chesnot/Getty Images

“You’ve got people here from fucking Tuvalu. And it’s like, I don’t know how many times in your life, if you’re from Tuvalu, that you get to go to Paris, but I’m guessing it’s not a ton. It’s pretty far, and pretty expensive, and pretty hard to get here. I hope these guys, I just really hope that they get a chance to go to the Louvre and see the Mona Lisa or go up the Eiffel Tower or whatever their jam is, because it would be the saddest thing in the world to get to go to Paris for the first time in your life, and just spend two miserable fucking weeks in Le Bourget [the suburb where the conference is], eating baguette sandwiches. That would be the worst. Even if you’re from a country that is about to be drowned under the ocean. I still think that on your list of disappointments in your life — definitely the country being destroyed by climate change would be number one, but I feel like wasting your trip to Paris in 2015 would still be in the top 10.”

On being shut out of the juiciest behind-closed-doors conversations:

“Somewhere in that building, in the last couple days, there have been some amazingly intense discussions, and probably not all of them have been about climate change.

“Believe — and I’m not saying this because I have it confirmed, I’m just saying strong supposition that it has to fucking be true — that Obama’s top advisors who came with him were probably sitting down with Putin’s top advisors. And I would love to know what the fuck they were saying to each other. Maybe they were throwing books at each other, maybe they were making out, maybe they just sat there with their heads buried in pieces of paper and were just reading each other what they’ve been told to say.

“Fuck. If there was some badge that I could have gotten that would have been the ‘Sit on John Kerry’s Lap Every Minute of COP,’ I would have gladly done it, because that would be a great story and I would love to know what goes on when the door closes.

A plenary session of the Comité de Paris at COP21.


“Everybody is so relentlessly positive, like all the fucking time. Even if they’re unhappy they’re positive, especially the Americans. American officials always want to exude the appearance that they’re in control, the appearance that everything’s cool. They know everything. There’s no surprises. ‘Oh my God, I’ve seen this a million times, but don’t worry about it because I know how to handle this thing.’ In this case in particular, Obama administration wants a really big win, they want this to go really, really well for them. So they’re all smiles. It’s very hard to try and break them down and get them to even admit that the fucking croque-madame that they got at the sandwich bar was slightly off.”

On the “ballerest fucking answer” at a press conference:

“The grand prize for candor right now goes to the environment minister of India [Prakash Javadekar]. He’s fucking feisty. He’s almost like Donald Trump. Don’t print that — I don’t mean that in the sense that he’s a fascist shit-bag — I mean he might be but I have no idea, I don’t know anything about his politics.”

[Katz attended a press conference with lead negotiators from India, China, South Africa, and Brazil. There, officials demanded more transparency from rich countries on how climate change mitigation money is counted and tracked. At the same time, they were bragging about their own aid spending without offering to provide similar measures of transparency.]

“I raised my hand, as one does at a press conference, and I say, ‘OK, you guys say you want total accountability and transparency on how the rich countries spend their climate related development money, but then you are doing it individually and outside the system, so that nobody can track it. Don’t those things contradict each other?’ And the Indian environment minister, his answer was that they are obligated to be transparent, and we are not. Like, ‘They agreed to be transparent, and we never agreed to that, so have fun. Have a nice climate talk. Sincerely, India.’ That was basically his answer. That’s the ballerest fucking answer.

This is what a COP21 press conference looks like.


“It wasn’t like, ‘Oh well, this is actually moral when you think about it, and it’s the only way it’s feasible and sure, it’s not perfect but we live in an entropic universe.’ He was just basically like, ‘We’re not telling you what we’re doing, because fuck you. You haven’t made us tell you yet.’”

On wishing he could write “COP21 is Decadent and Depraved,” à la Hunter S. Thompson:

“I’m not seeing it. They do sell beer in the complex, which is nice, but so far I haven’t seen anyone — like you would expect somebody — like, someone doesn’t give a shit. There’s gotta be some delegation from someplace that’s just like, ‘Fuck life, we’re in Paris.’ But no, no one’s doing that. No one’s hooking up in the corner, nobody’s falling off of a staircase yet.

“There was a reporter for a major newspaper who was sitting at his or her workstation this evening with a full bottle of red wine, and these little plastic cups that they give you, that you’re supposed to hold onto, and you can turn back in and they give you your deposit on the cup back. I walked up to this person and I said, ‘Desk wine, always a good idea.’ So there was that.

“Literally the most exciting thing I can tell you is like, people are drinking wine, and it’s tasty, because it’s well-crafted, and a decent vintage, for not too expensive. That’s basically the most exciting thing I can tell you.”

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