United Nations climate talks, like many negotiations, are a blend of dead seriousness and theater. Today at the talks in Durban, South Africa, an American college student provided a moment of theater by shouting out a short, unauthorized speech during the main session of the talks. Her interruption encapsulated frustration with the pace of the talks in general, and the United States' role in particular.
While real negotiations go on behind closed doors, the main hall of the international conference center in Durban has been given over to brief speeches — one from each of the 190-plus countries attending the conference. When it was time for the United States to take the podium, the room turned its attention instead to a young woman up in the galley:
"You must set aside partisan politics and let science dictate decisions. You must pledge ambitious targets to lower emissions, not expectations. 2020 is too late to wait," the woman said.
A youth group identified her as a college student from New Jersey named Abigail Borah. She was ejected from the meeting, but only after receiving a warm round of applause. And though her intervention was unorthodox, many other people have found ways to jab the United States more diplomatically. For example, Jo Leinen from the European Parliament managed a dig at both China and the United States at a news conference yesterday, wondering why neither country has been bullish on a new legal agreement to replace the fading Kyoto Protocol.
"The one is not yet ready, the other is not yet willing," he said.
American diplomats are used to being the focus of criticism at these meetings, in no small measure because the U.S. has tremendous power to make a difference. But diplomats from both Republican and Democratic administrations move deliberately — not wanting to promise more than they can deliver from an always fractious capitol hill.
Even so, the idea that the U.S. is delaying action until 2020 became such a meme that chief negotiator Todd Stern called a press conference shortly after the college student's stunt, to rebut his critics.
"I've heard this from everywhere — from ministers to press reports, to the very sincere and passionate young woman who was in the hall when I was giving my remarks," Stern said. "I just wanted to be on the record to say that that's just a mistake. It's just not true."
Stern listed the many U.S. efforts to put flesh on the bones of agreements reached in the past two years. A lot of the criticism focuses on Stern's insistence about what comes next. He has repeatedly said that unlike the Kyoto climate treaty, the next agreement must put the U.S. and China on equal legal footing, and he has been saying the U.S. won't move forward without that first.
"So what the U.S. has been doing for the last two years, with all due respect, is been showing the leadership necessary to drag this process into the 21st century," Stern said.
The Kyoto treaty excuses developing nations, including China, from reducing emissions, so many nations are unhappy to see their favorable status fade away. But Paul Bledsoe from the Bipartisan Policy Center says this is actually a rare time when the unpopular U.S. position makes sense, both at home and abroad.
"Killing Kyoto is going to play well on Capitol Hill. It's also probably the right thing to do in policy terms. We need to end this dysfunctional process and hit the reset button," Bledsoe says.
Just how big a jolt that ends up being depends on how these talks conclude Friday, or as seems increasingly likely, on Saturday.