STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
We're about to meet two men whose assignment is to save the world.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
That might be a slightly overblown description of their task, but only slightly. They are two diplomats leading international negotiations over climate change. Their leading talk's due to wrap up in Paris later this year.
INSKEEP: Their task is to get 200 countries to agree on what to do. Those 200 nations, of course, include the United States, where both houses of Congress include leaders who dismissed the scientific consensus on climate change. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce wanted to meet the men who would sign up for such a task.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: The vast State Department building in Washington, D.C. is a labyrinth. My official escort gets lost. We have to consult maps and ask strangers. Finally, we reach a small, stuffy, windowless conference room where Dan Reifsnyder is waiting.
DAN REIFSNYDER: My normal job is deputy assistant secretary for environment here at the State Department.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: For the rest of this year, though, he's doing something a little different - chairing climate talks for the United Nations.
REIFSNYDER: It's kind of like taking 196 cats and trying to get them all to move in the same direction.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: But at least he's not herding these cats alone. His co-chair is sitting across the table. He's an ambassador from Algeria named Ahmed Djoghlaf. And he says he's only part of this, quote, "thanks to Dan." I ask him what he means and Djoghlaf says, he wouldn't have agreed to lead the negotiations with anyone else.
AHMED DJOGHLAF: If it was not Dan as a co-chair, I would have think twice. The chemistry and working relationship between two to guide a process is very important. It's like you have a co-pilot, not a pilot. So if you don't get along, the plane can collapse and you can have a crash.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: What these two men are actually piloting is something called the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action. This is diplomat speak for the effort to finally get a meaningful, global agreement to rein in greenhouse gas emissions that are warming the planet.
REIFSNYDER: They say that we're married this year, Ahmed and I. It probably feels like that to our spouses, you know, 'cause we're probably with each other more often than with them.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: This is kind of an arranged marriage. There are two co-chairs because the industrialized world and the developing world don't trust each other. Historically, rich nations have wanted to curb emissions. Poor nations have said, hey, you made this mess, not us. Don't set rules that might limit our growth. So there's one chair from the U.S. and one from Algeria.
Didn't you guys used to be, basically, part of groups that would be opposed to each other?
REIFSNYDER: Yes, but an interesting thing happens when you get elected to one of these positions. You know, you kind of are expected and you do, I think, kind of rise above your group. You cease to become an advocate. You become a broker.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: And despite growing up an ocean apart, these brokers seem to have a lot in common. They both wear suits and ties. Reifsnyder's tie is striped; Djoghlaf's has little elephants. They both have Ph.D.s and law degrees. They're both in their 60s with gray hair. Both say, in another life, they might've been college professors. Instead, they were both drawn to this career. When I asked them what it's really like to do international climate negotiations, Reifsnyder tells me the story of one would-be negotiator. She has to follow him around to learn the ropes, but she didn't last long.
REIFSNYDER: She said, I need sleep, I need food, I need exercise, I need fresh air; I can't do this. I can't sit in rooms for 18 hours on end and not eat and not sleep and listen to these arguments and go at it. And I thought, well, it's a good thing you figured that out in three days. You know, I haven't figured it out yet.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Neither has Djoghlaf, who's cracking up at this description of their life's work.
So you like this life?
DJOGHLAF: To be frank with you, no, no.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Djoghlaf actually had been planning to retire, which pleased his wife, but instead, he took on this huge responsibility.
DJOGHLAF: So when she heard about it, she was mad. And she told me that you cannot live without these processes and you are addicted.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He and Reifsnyder both say what drives them is a sense of mission.
REIFSNYDER: We only have one planet, you know? We have to protect it.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: These guys can't remember when they first met. They say it must have been during some of the very first climate negotiations about 25 years ago. I asked them how they would describe each other. Djoghlaf says his partner is a walking encyclopedia of climate change.
DJOGHLAF: I am relying entirely on him on the substance, of course, on the knowledge of the issues., and the issues are extremely complicated.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: And in return, here's what Reifsnyder says about him.
REIFSNYDER: I would say he is the quintessential diplomat. He is extremely gifted and smooth with people.
DJOGHLAF: And that is what Dan thinks, but this is not true (laughter).
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He's such a good diplomat, he insists that, really, his colleague is more skilled. But let's be clear. All the diplomacy in the world won't stop the planet from getting warmer. Most experts predict that when talks conclude in Paris, nations won't have promised enough to meet a goal set years ago, limiting global warming to two degrees Celsius. Still, it would be a big deal to get consensus on a reasonably ambitious and robust plan for moving forward. That would repair some damage done in 2009 when the last major climate talks fell apart in Copenhagen.
DJOGHLAF: As you know, in 2009, it was a failure. You can call it whatever you want, but it was a failure.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Djoghlaf says no one can afford a repeat of that. That's why he and Reifsnyder will spend months listening to representatives from countries big and small. They'll wrangle with long, unwieldy documents and will agonize over every detail of negotiation sessions right down to the seating arrangements.
REIFSNYDER: People talk about how you spend years negotiating the shape of the table. Well, the shape of the table can be very important.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Later this year in Paris, they'll find out if they got the shape of the table right. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.
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