In the final hours of writing up the UN Paris climate deal on Saturday, one word threatened to undermine the whole 31-page agreement.
The word “should” was changed to “shall” in the portion of the text that discusses whether richer countries will help cover the financial losses of poorer countries as they transition into greener, carbon-cutting economies.
While this might seem like pedantic semantics, that one word could have dramatically increased the responsibilities and obligations of richer countries – something the United States was particularly wary of.
In the context of the agreement, “should” is more of an ambiguous suggestion, while “shall” is a hard command. That’s the difference between saying it’s advisable that richer countries help poorer countries and saying that richer countries have to financial help poorer countries transition to greener economies.
U.S. officials highlighted the switch of words that culminated in John Kerry, the U.S. Secretary of State, saying he would not support the final agreement if there wasn’t an amendment, the Washington Post reported.
Kerry told reporters after the deal had been accepted: “I said: ‘We cannot do this and we will not do this. And either it changes, or President Obama and the United States will not be able to support this agreement.”
However, there was no bad blood between the United States and the other delegates of the agreement. A new draft of the agreement was written up within hours, while Kerry and other U.S. representatives believe the mix-up was just lost in translation: “It was a genuine – it was a mistake. I am convinced.”
[H/T: The Washington Post]