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At climate summit, the real action is behind the scenes

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The Washington Post's Juliet Eilperin talks with Collin Beck, the Solomon Islands' permanent representative to the United Nations, at the U.N. climate change conference in Cancun, Mexico.

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By William Booth and Juliet Eilperin
Thursday, December 9, 2010

CANCUN, MEXICO - Hundreds of bleary-eyed bureaucrats - from powerhouse countries, tiny island nations and almost everything in between - have begun the serious wheeling and dealing in climate talks here, jostling over individual words in final texts that will steer how hundreds of billions of dollars could be spent trying to save the planet.

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These obscure carbon wonks and government functionaries, known as the Negotiators, live in a weedy world of micro-detail and speak in an almost impenetrable code about ICAs and MRVs. But they were the rock stars Wednesday at the Moon Palace convention center, where a high-stakes game of geopolitics is being played - and where there will be clear winners and losers at week's end.

The top 200 negotiators and the governments they represent need to bang out enough compromise to preserve the very legitimacy of U.N.-led multilateral talks if there is ever going to be a legally binding international treaty to lower greenhouse gas emissions.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon declared Tuesday evening: "We do not need final agreement on all issues. But we do need progress on all fronts."

Meeting behind closed doors, their documents guarded by U.N. security, or huddling over coffee at 2 a.m. in hotel rooms, the negotiators are moving toward a 24-hour schedule as the conference speeds toward its close Friday night. Their movements - their expressions, their body language - are literally watched by "negotiator stalkers" keen on divining the direction of the talks.

Is Alf Wills, the gray-ponytailed chief negotiator from South Africa, looking especially glum? Why is Indian Environmental Minister Jairam Ramesh so Zen calm?

"Negotiators are gods," Ramesh quipped. "Ministers are lesser deities."

Ramesh, who has played a critical role in bridging the divide between industrialized nations and major emerging economies such as China and his own country, pointed out Wednesday that the outcome is often determined by negotiators - not the ministers who will make the tough political decisions Friday and sign the texts.

"They're posturing. They are feinting and bobbing," said Duncan Marsh, director of international climate policy for the Nature Conservancy and one of thousands of observers who are arm-twisting negotiators to endorse their positions. "They use the press to signal to each other. They pretend they won't move on an issue, but they will. But they all want to hold their cards as close to their chests as they can."

Most of the agitation is on behalf of the environment and the poor, with chamber-of-commerce types being in the minority in Cancun hallways.

"The reason it is so tense and why agreements emerge at the eleventh hour, or the thirteenth hour, is that the economic stakes are so high," said Jake Schmidt, international climate policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Billions of dollars in taxpayer money is riding on the precise language of texts that the negotiators are poring over line by line.


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