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Meet the 20-Somethings Who Have Been Tracking the Paris Climate Talks in a Google Doc

Peppered with GIFs and humorous observations of international delegates, the document is the only record of the deliberations that have been taking place behind the conference's closed doors.
Photo by Lucie Aubourg/VICE News.

As diplomats meeting just outside of Paris try to hammer out a global plan to tackle climate change, two youth delegates from New Zealand have taken it upon themselves to help keep the world informed about the negotiations.

Ryan Mearns, 22, and Hamish Laing, 23, have spent the last ten days of the conference painstakingly tracking deliberations in a public Google doc.

"We started it for logistical reasons," explained Mearns, a campaign director at ActionStation — a digital community based in New Zealand that focuses on social justice. Mearns and Laing are among eight youth delegates who were invited to attend the summit as observers by the Aotearoa Youth Leadership Institute.


But what started off as a resource for other youth delegates who couldn't attend all the meetings was soon picked up by environmental activists and reporters, many of whom have relied on the document for its constantly updated, summarized transcript of interventions by international negotiators.

"We weren't aware of how important what we were doing was," Mearns told VICE News. "And then journalists from the New York Times, Mashable, and Slate reached out to us on Twitter to thank us and tell us they found it very useful."

Today, whenever the pair live-blogs a meeting, more than 100 people log in to follow their real-time updates, and the document continues to be widely shared on Twitter.

Hamish Laing (left) and Ryan Mearns take notes during the Paris climate summit. (Photo by Lucie Aubourg/VICE News)

It may have started off as a simple idea, but in many ways Mearns and Laing's initiative — which marks the first, real-time public record of a climate summit — is groundbreaking. When asked if their communication of closed-door negotiations has landed them in any trouble, Mearns and Laing explained that they are simply fulfilling their role as civil society observers.

Laing and Mearns said if they couldn't report on the talks, what is the point of attending.

Despite their shared interests and unique collaboration, Mearns and Laing only met because of the conference. Describing climate change as "one of the greatest challenges of our generation," they said that they were happy to pay for their travel to Paris and their accommodation in the capital for a chance to take part in a summit that many hope will end in a historic climate action plan.


Laing is a first-year engineering student in London and is concentration on sustainable energy. Mearns studied politics. While they both admitted to feeling overwhelmed at the start of the summit, they quickly grew accustomed to the sprawling conference site at Le Bourget, north of Paris, which has become their headquarters over the last ten days.

They have also become familiar with the structure of deliberations and the inner workings of the summit, which is divided into open and closed-door sessions, and formal or informal plenaries.

At the top of the pyramid are the plenary sessions, which are live-streamed on the UN's website. Most of the diplomatic strong-arming takes place at the bottom of the pyramid, in the various break-out groups that deliberate over specific sections of the proposed agreement.

Between the two are the "contact groups," who discuss significant issues and, in one way, are tasked with assembling the puzzle of negotiations. While the general public and the press are excluded from these meetings, accredited observers like Mearns and Laing can attend.

Mearns and Laing walk down one of the corridors at the conference site in Le Bourget. (Photo via Lucie Aubourg/VICE News)

"We've tried to put across what the atmosphere is like in the room," said Laing. Indeed, the document is peppered with lively descriptions — "speaking incredibly fast" and "said entire intervention in one breath" — to liven up the transcript of what can otherwise be "very boring" sessions.

GIFs and cheeky hashtags, like #theyareonlyhuman and "GettingCarriedAway," liven up the diplomatic jargon and deliberations that seem to go on forever.


Being so immersed in the deliberations has also given Laing and Mearns a unique perspective on the diplomatic wrangling as debates heat up in the final days of the summit. Saudi Arabia has come under fire this week for trying to block attempts to negotiate tougher targets.

"They're going about it in a very diplomatic way," said Laing. "You have to be able to read between the lines, but if you listen to what they're implying, they're basically trying to block everything."

The role and involvement of the 14,000 civil society observers and environmental activists present at the conference has been a thorny issue since day one of the conference.

As a result of heightened security measures implemented since the November terror attacks that killed 130 in and around Paris, officials have limited — and in some cases, banned — large public gatherings, including a massive climate march at the beginning of the talks. The French police has also banned demonstrations in and around the conference site, as part of the state of national emergency that was declared following the attacks.

Aside from limiting their power to protest, civil society activists have also criticized organizers for shutting them out of closed-door meetings. At previous conferences, NGO representatives were allowed to attend spin-off meetings, which is where the bulk of the negotiating take place.

But this year, organizers agreed to keep those sessions closed to activists.


"I'm very frustrated today, because we weren't able to attend any meetings," said Mearns. Monday marked the opening of the "ministerial segment" of the conference, in which environment, trade, and foreign affairs ministers from the 195 participating nations will review the initiatives outlined in the draft text that was approved this weekend.

During the second week, access to the meetings has further been restricted, and the only sessions that remain open to observers are the public plenaries. "At this point, it's very difficult to know who is blocking what and who is supporting what," Mearns bemoaned.

Related: Paris Climate Talks: Only Four More Days for a Plan to Save the World

Since their Google doc can no longer track what have now essentially become closed-door deliberations, Mearns and Laing have turned to the two activities that are still open to observers: action and lobbying.

On Tuesday afternoon, Laing joined other youth delegates from YOUNGO — a collective of Youth NGOs — to stage a peaceful protest inside giant paper brackets — a nod to the hundreds of bracketed statements that remained to be approved in the draft agreement.

Observers like Laing and Mearns have spent the second week of the conference arguing with their country's delegates to keep some of those bracketed statements in the final agreement.

Ne mettez pas notre future entre crochet. Il faut garder l'équité intergénérationnelle dans le texte — Julie Remy (@JuRemB)December 8, 2015


"Don't bracket our future. We need to keep intergenerational equity in the text."

"I am part of a group of young [delegates] that is trying to make sure the term 'Intergenerational equity' remains in the text," said Laing. Intergenerational equity refers to the idea that each generation should make sure subsequent generations can enjoy comparable resources and a similar quality of life to theirs.

At the start of the conference, the term was featured in the agreement three times. But by Saturday, when a first version of the draft agreement was released by delegates, there was only one mention. When asked whether he would like to see the two other mentions of intergenerational equity restored, Laing said, "We mainly want to make sure the remaining mention doesn't get scrapped."

A few hours after speaking with VICE News, negotiators released a new version of the draft agreement — one that doesn't feature a single mention of intergenerational equity.

Laing tweeted in response, that it was "a sad day for future generations."

Follow Lucie Aubourg on Twitter: @LucieAbrg