The conference center in Le Bourget on the outskirts of Paris, where global climate negotiations are underway, could be mistaken for any big convention space anywhere in the world. There are cavernous auditoriums big as airplane hangars. There are lots of anonymous meeting rooms, perfect for crafting last-minute deals. The exterior of one of the halls is a windowless, undulating mass of charcoal black, with all the charm of asphalt.
It’s an uninspiring place, to say the least, an atmosphere that is not likely to help spark the kind of breakthrough agreement needed to halt catastrophic climate change.
So here’s an idea: The heads of state, top ministers and key negotiators should take a day off from the talks and go for a walk in the woods together.
This isn’t as hippy-dippy as it might sound, and there’s actually a historical precedent for such a thing.
On May 19, 1945, more than 500 diplomats who had gathered in San Francisco to negotiate the formation of the United Nations took a break and traveled across the Golden Gate Bridge to visit Muir Woods, a national monument. The excursion to the grove of old-growth redwoods served as a memorial gathering for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who had died shortly before the inaugural U.N. summit began. But organizers of the field trip had planned a session in the redwoods before Roosevelt’s death, with the hope that some time among the giant trees would imbue the negotiations with a deeper sense of purpose.
“Here in such a ‘temple of peace’ the delegates would gain a perspective and sense of time that could be obtained nowhere in America better than in a forest,” Interior Secretary Harold Ickes wrote to Roosevelt in February 1945, as plans were being made for the U.N. conference. “Muir Woods is a cathedral, the pillars of which have stood through much of recorded human history.”
The diplomats who met in San Francisco in 1945 were trying to figure out how to prevent another firestorm like the one that had left Europe and Asia in ashes. The diplomats meeting in Paris now are trying to figure out how to contain the conflagration we’ve sparked with our fossil-fuel burning — and they, too, could benefit from the refreshment of some time outdoors.
Political scientists and environmental activists often point out that the problem with global climate change is that it’s too big. We’re hard-wired to respond to immediate threats, and since global warming is so large — and most of its worst effects are in the future — we have a hard time wrapping our minds around it. All of the science can seem abstract. And even as the weather gets increasingly weird and unsettling, it can be difficult to separate the signal from the noise and to understand exactly which wild weather phenomena are connected to our reckless emissions.
What better way to ground — really, ground — the negotiators than for them to take a hike? The Vexin Français Regional Nature Park is a scant 30 miles from the conference center, and the negotiators could get there and back in a day. The park, northwest of the city, is a 175,000-acre preserve of fields, forests, meadows and marshlands. The place served as an inspiration for painters such as Van Gogh and Cézanne, and perhaps the landscape would inspire the climate diplomats, as well.
At the very least, a day in wild nature would offer negotiators a respite from the rigors of the 24-hour talks. The fresh air and open scenery would be a chance to calm the body and quiet the mind. As Ickes said, the trees would offer perspective and a sense of time. An afternoon in the woods would remind the negotiators that their task, above all, is to ensure that our generation will be good ancestors to those who come after us.