From November 30 to December 12 of 2015, the twenty-first United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21) took place at an enormous exposition space on the outskirts of Paris. What follows is an artistic collaboration between myself, a writer, and photographer Giulia Bruno, that came from our attendance at the parts of the conference we could gain access to. It’s an attempt to graft the spaces unrepresented by media coverage onto the narrative of this historic moment. By representing the strategies of staging and directing sight, within COP21’s architecture and language, it offers a glimpse of the backstage —economic commitments and political fabric forming the backdrop of imagined futurity.
This December in Paris, prominent environmental activist and writer Naomi Kline was saying ‘This Changes Everything’, but so was Martin Sirk, CEO of the International Congress and Convention Association (ICCA). Despite it being the fourth day of the highly anticipated COP21 talks, Sirk was referring not to climate change or Paris, but rather to a shift of winds in the international association meetings market during his speech at the Netherlands Board of Tourism and Conventions. No longer, claimed Sirk, should meetings consultants bid for top flight convention events using old techniques, for which the ‘meeting’ is a “segment of the tourism economy“. The very essence of a meeting is changing, and it would be measured by more than leisure dollars. To attract clients, you needed to sell them on more than just culture and restaurants —“any serious destination” must make use of local universities and research institutions, putting advancement of economic development, inward investment and intellectual capital “at the heart of their strategy.”
Meetings are no longer ends in themselves, but “a vital tool to enhance city” and national economic competitiveness,” an opportunity to brand. The managing company of the Paris-Le Bourget site of the COP21, Viparis, positioned itself as “more than a supplier, it is a partner alongside COP21’s organisers — Republic of France, the Ministry of Ecology and Development, and the United Nations, playing a role in the success of COP21, a showcase event offering international visibility for Viparis and for France”. With the term ‘showcase’, we’re given the sense of an event meant to display the most attractive qualities of something, but also of a box with a glass top or sides, used for displaying objects in a store or museum. Paris ranks as the number one city for international congresses according to the 2014 ICCA rankings, and Viparis manages the ten largest exhibition centres in the city. The international congress market “is a key priority” for their business, and for the past twenty-one years, the series of COP conventions have been a part of that market all over the world.
Situated on the edge of Paris, the site of Le Bourget’s eighteen hectare plot of land is equipped with 80,000 square metres of built indoor space, to which the UN adds 100,000. An airstrip located inside the area provides heads of state direct and fluid access to the site, which Deputy director Pablo Nakhlé-Cerruti explains in an interview is capable of being completely enclosed by security forces, quickly if necessary. Highly organised and well connected public transport carries over 40,000 attendees in and out of the site during the negotiations. In the city, reassuring female voices float out of the intercoms at train stations, directing participants and observers to said ‘showcase’; workers in green COP vests stand at staircases and ticket machines, speaking English and offering maps.
Walking an aesthetic line between commercial trade show and secured diplomatic forum, Le Bourget was envisioned as a “mini-city that never sleeps”, complete with a foreign exchange office, a post office, food stalls, an infirmary for minor injuries, and a meditation room. Despite the average town centre gestures, it is not a typical urban form. On November 28, French Foreign Affairs Minister Laurent Fabius hands over symbolic keys in a ceremony: Paris-Le Bourget’s is no longer in the city of Paris or the nation of France. For the duration of the conference, it officially becomes a United Nations territory, unbounded by national sovereignties and elevated as a stage for the debate of futurity.
The marketing language put COP21 in a lineage of meetings that also make use of the Le Bourget site, things like the Paris Air Show and military expos. But the words spoken in its interiors position COP21 as paramount and singular, an exposition unprecedented in history. And its object on display? The climate accord.
The work of COPs since 1995 has been world-building through a collectively shaped text. At COP21, the tool for constructing this world is the grammatical practice of bracketing. ‘Bracketing’ is climate summit parlance for selecting portions of text to section off as contested, up for negotiation or possibly complete removal. Single phrases, like the infamous “[below 1.5 °C [or] [well] below 2 °C]”, contain all the potentials of life, the brackets erected as walls with the power to exclude or include. As a method of writing the future, a bracket here could mean an island country there; or differently interpreted, brackets might write the same island out of existence.
But the power to exist in the future has always been related to the power to exist in the past. In the final hours of December 12, most negotiating blocs are accepting what is proposed as the final version of the text. In the last moment the United States takes issue with a crucial part of Article 4.
According to activist correspondents for Earth in Brackets, two days earlier the text had looked like this:
“Developed country Parties [should] continue to take the lead. Each Party that has previously communicated absolute economy-wide emission reduction or limitation targets [should] continue to do so, and all Parties [should] aim to do so over time in light of different national circumstances and stages of development.”
However, by December 12 the final draft proposal looked like this:
“Developed country Parties shall continue taking the lead by undertaking economy-wide absolute emission reduction targets. Developing country Parties should continue enhancing their mitigation efforts, and are encouraged to move over time towards economy-wide emission reduction or limitation of targets in the light of different national circumstances.”
The ‘shall’ is referred to as a ‘typo’ by US delegates; huddles form in the room, the COP is reconvened for it to be fixed to and changed to ‘should’:
The difference seems slight. But the connotations of the word ‘should’ echo much differently than ‘shall’ within chambers debating policies of legal compensation from the global North to the global South. ‘Shall’ is legally committing to cut emissions, whereas ‘should’ is merely committing to trying to. ‘Should’ levels the obligation of the developed with the developing — a subtle word choice makes historical responsibility look much different.
As a science, meteorology was a late bloomer among branches of Western natural philosophy. The atmosphere escaped observation due to the enigmatic nature of its substance — air. Because it is invisible, in order to see its properties early Western scientists needed to be able to divide it, create an inside and an outside from which to look at it. By the 17th century, developments in glass instrument-making enabled this division. But indivisibility of air remains a challenge for diplomatic processes rooted in bounded territories. In her critique of Heidegger’s metaphysics, French philosopher Luce Irigaray replaces the Earth with the Air for the starting point for Being. Air is both what establishes the self and allows one to face the Other: “I can breathe in my own way, but the air will never simply be mine.” It’s inside you and outside you, at once. It is for this reason that she calls the human mechanism of taking air in and out – breathing – the most significant philosophical gesture of our time.
Could the fact of air’s indivisibility be not the obstacle to futurity, but rather, the opportunity to rearrange? Climate change has been described as a “reconfiguration of an authority, notwithstanding nations and their institutions, still or once more rooted in the cities and in a new sense of citizenship”, and offers a new political scenario that overrides state borders. Where does this leave a meeting like COP21, a showcase of national players?
It is clear at COP that if the emission reductions submitted by each nation (“Intended Nationally Determined Contributions” or INDCs) are implemented, the world will be on course for three degrees of warming. However, because all eyes are on them, the delegates at the showcase commit to keep warming to under the two degree mark, despite their INDCs; they plan to do this in large part by relying on negative emissions technologies (BECCS) that recapture the carbon that goes into the air, so they don’t have to put less out.
It remains unclear how the text intends to rewrite the future without naming these forces that shape the present. If the national delegates can’t say these words on an international stage, who can? If these words don’t make it into the text they display, why not?
The hype of Paris as an incomparable success and its image of one-world unity suggests a need for more scrutiny of a process that is so self-conscious — in its construction and circulation. The distance between what is shown and what isn’t, the gap between what and who makes it in the [buildings] [text], and who doesn’t, often falls to climate justice movements to be taken up, to find methods of taking control for those historically least responsible for the changing climate. At the close of the conference, the rights of indigenous peoples, financing for loss and damage, problems with current INDCs, sponsorship by fossil fuel industry — all issues left out of the operational text — are embodied and performed by many activist organisations as ‘red lines’ which cannot be crossed for a liveable planet. Because despite attempts to obscure them, the activists too are part of the showcase.
However, as visual performances of disobedience wane and COP21 itself falls out of the news cycle, the work of its implementation will begin. The glass separating the insides and outsides must be questioned. The atmosphere doesn’t correspond to the borders negotiating its future, but everyone knows that the severity and pain of its effects will. As Irigaray points out through breath, the atmosphere also doesn’t correspond to the most essential border that must be challenged and reconsidered in the debate of futurity, the division between Nature and the Human. **