Reaching an Ultimatum (Part I)
What could a hypothetical future climate change discussion between the United States and China look like?
December 26, 2009
Saturday July 30, 2033 — Lake Palace Resort, Udaipur, India
U.S. President Joe Benton glanced across the table at President Wen.
It was a huge table, and another seven world leaders sat around it, each backed by entourages of a dozen or more people. It was the first G9 to be hosted by India, which had been admitted to the club four years earlier.
Consciously adopting the role of spokesperson for the developing world, the Indian government had stated that the focus of the meeting would be threefold: The final liberalization of trade in agricultural products, which would require termination of the remaining subsidies in developed countries; transition to a new patent regime for genetically modified crops; and support for environmental refugees by reception countries in the developing world, most of which lacked the resources even to manage the internal migrations being forced upon them by climate change.
In the days before the meeting, as if to make the point, an early monsoon had put almost a fifth of the Bangladesh land surface under water and sent another four million refugees streaming toward the Indian border to join the estimated 20 million who were already living on the other side.
Terrible scenes had taken place along the border until world opinion had forced the Indian government to let the refugees through. No one was prepared to admit it yet, but everyone knew that few of them would ever go back.
Joe had come armed with a generous aid package for the Bangladesh refugees, and he planned to use his announcement of the funding as a spur to the other governments of the G9 to address the problem on a systematic scale.
But the most important part of the meeting, for him, wouldn’t take place in the meeting hall in the presence of eight other leaders and 200 staff. It would take place in a private discussion, scheduled for later that day, between him and President Wen.
In Oslo, Pete Lisle and Oliver Wu had been negotiating intensively with Lin and Gao for nearly three weeks.
The initial proposals were a million miles apart. For the first few days the two pairs of negotiators ignored this as they worked on creating an integrated document with an agreed scope and set of clauses, leaving all the differences in brackets. This itself had proved a demanding task.
The Chinese proposal, for example, had said nothing about verification, while the U.S. paper offered suggestions about the method, frequency and depth. Should verification go into the paper at all, and if so, what level of detail was appropriate?
Eventually the two sides agreed that the paper should include verification as an item, but every specific clause on the subject in the U.S. paper ended up in brackets, like so much else, to be negotiated later. The integrated paper that emerged out of those first days was little more than a framework on which these sets of brackets could be hung.
By day six, there was a single paper, approved by Olsen in Washington and, Lisle assumed, by whomever Lin and Gao were talking with in Beijing. Then the hard part began.
They sat down to start talking about the contested details in brackets. As a rule, there are two ways of doing this: Start with the hardest part in the hope that everything else will fall into place if the greatest obstacle can be overcome, or start with the easy bits in the hope that early success will make it easier to resolve the biggest problem.
Either way, everything has to be settled. Lisle chose to go straight to the most difficult part, the formula for the emissions cuts. A week later, they were still talking about it. As Lisle had guessed, the Chinese suggestion, combining a relatively low level of cut with a per capita apportionment, and an additional weighting for historical emissions levels, meant that China ended up with a 2% cut in emissions over the next ten years, compared with around 40% for the United States.
That simply couldn’t work, and Lisle said that to Lin and Gao at the beginning. They asked for a counterproposal.
Lisle wouldn’t give them one — they would take the new proposal and pocket it, so that he would have given something away while getting nothing in return. If he was to provide a counterproposal to their position, he asked them to provide a counterproposal of their own to the U.S. position.
They refused, saying the U.S. position was so historically unfair there wasn’t any way even to begin to address it.
They were stalled. Lisle suggested an adjournment. He and Wu went back to Washington, Lin and Gao went to Beijing.
Joe Benton and President Wen went to India.
They met in a room with a magnificent balcony overlooking the water and the yellow hills beyond. The luxury resort the Indian government had chosen for the summit was built in the middle of a lake and was accessible only by helicopter or boat.
It also had only 58 suites, which meant that a fleet of boats continuously crisscrossed the lake, taking hundreds of aides and journalists who accompanied the G9 leaders to and from hotels around the lake where they were being accommodated.
Close to 15 of the scheduled 45 minutes allocated to the meeting were gone by the time the photojournalists were cleared out of the room. The two presidents remained sitting in armchairs, with interpreters behind them, and a small entourage on a sofa on either side.
The two presidents made general remarks. Wen talked about this being their first face-to-face meeting and hoping there would be many more. Benton responded appropriately.
The two leaders discussed a recent bombing that had taken place in the Philippines and the need to cooperate against terrorism.
With about ten minutes to go he was going to suggest that Wen and he have a few minutes in private. Olsen had tried to discourage him, but Benton had overruled his objection.
His gut told him this was what was needed. Direct, him and Wen, face-to-face, without the pressure of anyone else looking on, so they could be completely open with each other. That was the only way to break the deadlock in Oslo.
Eventually he made the suggestion. Wen held up his hand as the interpreter began translating and said in English that he would be pleased to speak in private with the president.
The entourages stood. Wen glanced at his interpreter and she stood as well. Everyone but the two presidents left the room.
There was silence for a moment. Both men savored the rare treat of being left unattended.
Joe Benton smiled. “I’m afraid it’s going to take a little while until we get to know each other and how we each do things.”
Wen smiled as well. “That is the problem with world leaders, is it not? As soon as one gets to know another, the first one is gone.” Wen laughed. “We should all be leaders for life!”
Benton chuckled along. “I don’t know about you, President Wen, but I’m not sure I’d want to inflict something that awful on the American people.”
“What? Me or you?” said Wen. The two presidents laughed again.
“Call me Joe,” said Benton.
“Frankie,” said Wen. He had picked up the moniker when doing postgrad work at Harvard 30 years earlier, and there were at least four different stories in the diplomatic world supposedly explaining how he had got it.
“Okay,” said Benton. He sat forward. “Here’s the thing, Frankie. My guys tell me we’re stalled in Oslo.”
Wen looked at him with interest.
Still Wen didn’t reply.
“Okay, I’m going to be completely open. Your proposal is way below our bottom line. We’re not bluffing, it’s just way below it. We can’t do it. We’ve given on some things, but nothing’s coming back. I’m being completely open. Neither of us is going to get anywhere from here if we don’t see any movement on your side.”
“This is difficult for all of us,” said Benton. “I know that. But President Wen —”
Benton nodded. “Frankie, if we can pull this off, the world is going to thank us for generations to come.”
“It would truly be a historic step,” said Wen.
“I know you have to be sure there’s stability at home. I understand that. And whatever way you want to sell it at home, that’s okay. I know, I just know, that if we both want to make this happen, we can do it. There’s got to be a way we can find to get this done. What choice do we have?”
The Chinese president gazed at Benton.
Then he spoke, and his voice shook with emotion. “This is a time for leaders Joe. This is a time to do the hard things.”
“It is.” Benton felt it strongly, and his voice almost shook as well. He felt that the Chinese leader understood. For the first time, he felt that he really had a partner in this process. “It is, Frankie. A time for leaders.”
“Tell your men to go back to Oslo.”
“I want to do that, but I can’t send them back if there’s not going to be anything new.”
“Joe, trust me. Send them back.”
When they came out, it was 20 minutes after the scheduled end of their meeting. The entourages waited outside in two small groups. The presidents were chatting as they emerged. Wen said something, and Benton laughed.
Olsen sought his eye.
Benton winked, head still half-turned to listen to something else that Wen was saying.
Three days later, Lisle and Wu sat down in Norway across the table from Lin and Gao. Lin pulled a file out of his briefcase. He presented a redraft of the integrated paper.
The demand for an adjustment to reflect historical levels of emissions had disappeared.
Editors Note: This excerpt is a work of fiction from the book “Ultimatum.”
Start with the hardest part in the hope that everything else will fall into place if the greatest obstacle can be overcome. Or start with the easy bits in the hope that early success will make it easier to resolve the biggest problem.
The most important part of the meeting, for him, wouldn't take place in the meeting hall. It would take place in a private discussion, scheduled for later that day, between him and President Wen.
"Frankie, if we can pull this off, the world is going to thank us for generations to come."
"That is the problem with world leaders, is it not? As soon as one gets to know another, the first one is gone." Wen laughed. "We should all be leaders for life!"
As if to make the point, an early monsoon had put almost a fifth of the Bangladesh land surface under water and sent another four million refugees streaming toward the Indian border.