The Daily Climate

Speaking to power at the United Nations—and missing it completely.

What do you need for the climate talks? Curiosity, ambition and a translating device.

May 8, 2017


Our man in Bonn relearns an old lesson: Don't forget to grab a translating headset on the way in the door.

By Douglas Fischer

The Daily Climate

Follow @CptnClmt

Editor's note: Douglas Fischer is in Bonn with a delegation of Montana State University students. We'll publish a selection of their observations and assessments over the next week. Follow them online at #climateclass.

BONN – What do you need for the climate talks? Curiosity, ambition and a translating device. 

I had the first two covered: A press conference where UN climate secretariat Patricia Espinosa would offer her first views on the talks alongside the talks' conference chair, Salaheddine Mezouar, Morocco's Foreign Affairs minister, and the incoming chair, Ambassador Nazhat Shameem Khan of Fiji. I grabbed a spot in the second row to snap a good photo with my phone.

After the fourth version of the same question, Mezouar leaned forward, jaw set, eyes ablaze. And started speaking ... in French.

But when Mezouar opened his remarks in French, my game was done: I had failed to grab one of the ubiquitous translating headsets available to delegates and the press.

True, I was there mostly to hear Espinosa. So I sat politely (and, since I was in the second row, nodded every so often as he looked at me). 

But Espinosa, like a good politician, didn't say much new. "We need to go from general discussion to specific directions," she said, echoing words I've heard from climate secretariats back to Yvo de Boer. "There is not much time. We really need to make progress."

Ambassador Khan was similarly bland. The goal for Fiji these next two weeks, she said, was "to listen and to learn."

"It's very important for companies and stakeholders to believe in Fiji as a country willing to listen," she said.

But the dozen or so reporters wanted meat, not puff pastry. UN spokesman Nick Nuttall opened for questions, and four of the first five asked variations on the same theme: What happens if President Donald Trump pulls the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement or walks back its climate promises?

Espinosa and Khan took the first three. But after the fourth version of the same question, Mezouar leaned forward, jaw set, eyes ablaze.

"Ma conviction...," he began. The rest was lost to me.

Mezouar never dropped his gaze. Never looked down at his notes. Never paused to gather his thoughts. Reporters around me scribbled like mad. Applause briefly broke out—something I've never heard at a UN press conference. 

The language flowed rat-a-tat: Mezouar seemed to be offering an unequivocal, forceful defense of the talks, of global effort, of the need for governments everywhere to come together and solve this issue.

And I was completely in the dark.

Note: Karl Mathiesen, the Climate Home reporter who asked the question (and had a headset) noted that Mezouar was neither as forceful nor as direct as his body language suggested. Karl's conclusion? Mezouar never really answered the question. Karl's assessment on the risks to the US for leaving the agreement can be found here.

You can find the whole press conference, including the original French, here on the UNFCCC site.

EHS director Douglas Fischer is in Bonn for the first week of the intersessional talks underway May 8 through 18. Follow him on Twitter @cptnclmt.

The Daily Climate is an independent, foundation-funded news service covering energy, the environment and climate change. Find us on Twitter @TheDailyClimate or email editor Brian Bienkowski at bbienkowski [at] EHN.org

Photos - Douglas Fischer/Daily Climate.

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