A single one-syllable, five-letter word almost scuttled the Paris climate deal, and it was a Canadian who had to literally sit in front of the world and sort it out at the eleventh hour.
Not to mention apologize for an error the United States would never accept if allowed to stand.
The apology came from Winnipeg-born Richard Kinley. Previously an official of the Canadian government, Kinley is second in command to Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the United Nations-led Framework Convention on Climate Change.
This means Kinley manages the UN’s climate shop, including the behind-the-scenes machinery that led to the final Paris text — version L9 — which carried the following contentious line: “Developed country parties shall continue taking the lead by undertaking economy-wide absolute emission reduction targets.”
The problem word was “shall.” In international law, that seemingly benign word creates a legally binding commitment. But such obligations require Senate approval in the U.S. — at least as they relate to emissions targets.
If the “shall” were allowed to stay, there would be no chance U.S. President Barack Obama could secure domestic support for the agreement. Republicans in the Senate would vote it down, and the Paris climate change deal would fall apart.
When U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry first saw the sentence he was taken aback, telling a reporter “We cannot do this and we will not do this.”
There were two options: reopen the text for further revision, which risked having other countries step forward with their own demands, or admit the mistake in front of delegates from 196 countries.
The latter option was chosen, and it was Kinley who had to break the news that the word “shall” in Article 4, Paragraph 4 was the wrong word. It needed to be changed to “should.”
“As a result of the finalization of documents in haste by colleagues who had not slept for days, a number of errors regrettably were not detected in the document L9 as it was being finalized in the early hours of this morning,” said Kinley. “I would apologize for the oversights.”
Fortunately for all involved, no country stood up to protest the mistake.
How big a mistake was it?
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, chair of the summit and highly respected in diplomatic circles, assured Kerry personally that it was a simple error. America’s final backing of the deal came down to a simple matter of trust.
“Single words can have grave consequences,” said Robin Rix, another Canadian who worked with Kinley at the UNFCCC for six years. “In my experience, being on the other side, these sorts of slip-ups happen. These are people operating under really difficult conditions, really stressed out, having gone two or three nights without sleep.”
Rix said Kinley was the right person to deliver the apology for such a technical issue. “He’s a guru of the climate process; he knows everything, very sharp and on the ball. I have a lot of personal respect for him.”
– This article is part of a series produced in partnership by the Toronto Star and Tides Canada to address a range of pressing climate issues in Canada leading up to and following the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, December 2015. Tides Canada is supporting this partnership to increase public awareness and dialogue around the impacts of climate change on Canada’s economy and communities. The Toronto Star has full editorial control and responsibility to ensure stories are rigorously edited in order to meet its editorial standards.