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The world's elite share stirring speeches but little action on first day of COP 21 climate talks

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Keep Karl on Parl

At the end of the first day of the 21st Conference of the Parties I feel like we must be at day 4, or 5.  Why the sense of exhaustion? Over 150 world leaders speaking one after the other. The Conference of the Parties has always had its own rhythm.  Predictable flows of negotiation over decades in such meetings (whether in climate COPs or biodiversity COPs etc) have started with the lower level diplomats and negotiators beavering away on a draft text for the first week, with the pressure of knowing the ministers or (on rare occasions) heads of government will arrive in the second week and expect to see the product of good and effective work.

Things start slow and pressure builds. The glitches and logistical hiccups of the first day are easily remedied when the negotiations are in their early stage.

This negotiation has reversed that order. And by nightfall at the end of a barrage of speeches from leaders of over 150 countries, everyone felt frazzled. Okay, admittedly I do not know how everyone felt...but friends inside the UN system, friends from NGOs and staff of various ministers from many countries appeared good and frazzled.

The activity of the main conference was not limited to the leaders' speeches. I was invited to a lunch presentation from Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne. It ended up including Alberta's Rachel Notley, B.C.'s Christy Clark and a last minute appearance from Canada's new environment and climate change minister Catherine McKenna. In the audience were the National Chief of the AFN, Perry Bellegarde and the national head of the Canadian Labour Congress, plus the environment commissioners from Ontario and Canada. Had this event been held anywhere but in Paris at COP21, you could have sold tickets and filled a room 100 times bigger. As it is, we run into people easily who in normal life you could wait a year to meet.

Meanwhile in another room, Bill Gates and Barack Obama as well as PM Trudeau were announcing a multi-billion dollar clean tech fund.

On top of the intense process of shepherding U.S. President Barack Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Russia's Vladimir Putin, and so on -- enough to create serious stress at any conference, Paris and COP21 is not just any conference. The city remains in a state of emergency. Every roof top and every overpass has security personnel, snipers and many normal routes are closed. Getting in and out of the conference site today was not easy.

So, what of substance happened?

No one could fail to notice the shared sense of purpose of the political speeches. Many (eloquently HRH Prince of Wales, Prince Charles) addressed the issue of urgency and our responsibility to our own children.  Many offered concrete examples of how action in their own country had been good for their economy. I had really hoped that our new PM Justin Trudeau would have had a new offer, even a new target to announce, but having pledged $2.5 billion just days ago for climate financing, there was nothing new today.

Still, the reception for his speech, especially his pledge that Canada is back and here to help, was received with strong applause that drowned out his last few words.

So tomorrow the real work begins. Ministers will be back next week.

This is a conference that must make history. Its opening was historic being the largest gathering ever of leaders from around the world. Only the negotiating positions of the various nations will confirm whether the leaders made a speech for optics sake, or whether they are willing to put political capital on the line to save or kids and theirs from the devastation of catastrophic global warming.

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Keep Karl on Parl

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