First Person

“Negotiator trackers” open up mysteries of climate talks

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Emily Gertz is a freelance journalist, editor, and blogger covering the environment, technology, science, and sustainability. She reported on the Copenhagen climate talks on behalf of Oxfam America.

Over the past 18 years of international climate talks, the United Nations process has become hidden behind a wall of impenetrable jargon, as well as the often bewildering behavior of professional diplomats.

This is why the “Adopt-a-Negotiator” program sponsored 13 “trackers” over the past year from as many countries — including Brazil, Canada, China, India, and the United States — to follow the key national delegations, and then report back about their positions and actions during climate treaty meetings.

President Obama and Ben discuss the menu of options before negotiators at the climate talks in Copenhagen. Photo courtesy the Adopt a Negotiator project.
President Obama and Ben discuss the menu of options before negotiators at the climate talks in Copenhagen. Photo courtesy the Adopt-a-Negotiator program.

“We try to serve as a portal, to convey what our negotiators are doing in the talks to concerned citizenry back home,” US tracker Ben Jervey told me.

I caught up with Ben, a 30-year-old environmental writer and editor from Brooklyn, NY, for a brief interview about how and why he tracks the U.S. delegation. We talked on December 18, during what turned out to be the ultimate evening of the Copenhagen talks.

(Full disclosure: Ben and I both write for New York-based OnEarth Magazine. Ben was working on the night of this interview out of the Fresh Air Centre in central Copenhagen, a non-profit media center that sponsored me for my U.N. press credential. [[Thank you.]] And several years ago I was editor to Ben’s contributor for the now-defunct blog Worldchanging NYC. )

Emily Gertz: What, exactly, do the negotiator trackers do?

Ben Jervey: Our job is to really follow these talks, from the June talks in Bonn, through Bangkok, Barcelona, and now here in Copenhagen.

We attend the meetings, we get to know our negotiators. We help communicate back to the civil society base at home [on] where our countries respective positions stand.

EG: What has that meant on the ground here in Copenhagen?

BJ: How that works practically is, I spend a lot of time following the statements and comments and interventions of Jonathan Pershing, the lead negotiator for the United States.

He used to work at World Resources Institute, and interestingly was one of the lead authors of the very chapter of the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report that famously declared that developed nations needed to cut their emissions 25-40 percent by 2020. Something that the position that he’s pushing here in Copenhagen falls far short of. So there is a difficult paradox there.

EG: What is a typical day for a negotiator tracker?

BJ: A typical day, you come to the Bella Center, the conference center, pick up the morning program, and try to figure out which meetings are going to be important.

You’ll sit in a plenary or a contact group meeting, wait for the US to speak up, or for anything to be said that would affect the US position. Go to the press briefings and the NGO briefings. Try to get some time in the hallway with key members of the State Department’s delegation, and try to gather whatever sort of intelligence we can.

And at the end of the day, try to write it up into something that makes sense to normal people who don’t speak this UNFCCC [United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change] language.

EG: Is the delegation aware it’s being tracked?

BJ: Yes, absolutely. I have a pretty transparent and open relationship with the delegation, and they’re aware of my project. I know that they check it out. I’m not sure if Pershing checks it every day, with his [New York] Times headlines, but there are people in the delegation who have made a lot of comments on it.

They might actually use it as some sort of barometer of civil society opinion, and where the concerned, activist advocate space might stand.

EG: How has tracking affected the work of the negotiators?

BJ: I’ve got to be honest and say I don’t think it affects the negotiators very much. They are under pretty clear mandates from the State Department; I think the position that they’re supposed to be negotiating around is set pretty firmly.

And as we’ve seen in the past several days, most of the stickiest issues in these talks are above the level of State Department negotiators. The crucial tripping points that we haven’t solved, those are heads-of-state decisions.

By all accounts the negotiators themselves don’t have a lot to do today. [Because Friday was the day the heads-of-state took over the negotiations among themselves. — Emily]

EG: So if the reality is that tracking doesn’t have a big impact on what the negotiators do, what’s the goal?

BJ: I would really like people back home who care about climate change, or consider themselves climate change advocates, to better understand what’s happening here.

If you look at the average US climate activist, they wouldn’t really have a sense of what the US position is here. We’re trying to give them that information.

EG: So you’ve gotten to know the people on the delegation. Does that provide you with inside information as things happen?

BJ: They speak very candidly with me. If there’s any real type of inside access information, I can get a head’s up to what meeting might be really important that day.

EG: Have you gotten paid to do this?

BJ: It has technically been a volunteer gig. We have been flown here and put up, and have a per diem. And the access is enormously valuable, obviously.

EG: You’ve had to take a lot of time out from making money, and your personal life. Has it been worth it?

BJ: Yeah, definitely. It was a conscious decision. I felt the need to be more directly involved with this process. Considering the potential importance of these Copenhagen meetings, I was willing to sacrifice to work on it.

EG: It’s safe to assume that whatever comes out of here is going to require another meeting next year, maybe more than one. Will you continue to participate as a tracker?

BJ: To be determined. The fate of the TckTckTck campaign and the GCCA [Global Campaign for Climate Action] at large is all up in the air right now, as is this tracker program.

We had certainly hoped that this would be the end game. But I don’t think anyone was so naive as to think the battle would be completely over.

So we will circle back with each other in January, and figure out where we go from there. Facebook Twitter Instagram YouTube Google+