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Gate–crashing 'the inner sanctum of the elite' at the Paris climate talks

Walk into 'the most exclusive club in the world' in the middle of COP21, and you find the polite chit–chat with which the powerful face impending disaster.

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
18 December 2015

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Rue Rabelais, Google Street View, fair use

The street was cordoned off. Worse, it was guarded by an armed police officer. And he seemed to be giving me a look. Bugger. I fiddled with my phone, pretending to be lost, then followed Googlemaps round to the other end of the road. There was a metal barrier there too, and another man with a uniform, a semi–automatic, and a look of suspicion.

Retreating to the Renault cafe until the event started, I emailed Nick to say I'd meet him outside. It didn't look like I was going to get in, so I may as well join him photographing America's politicians and top lobbyists as they arrived.

When I returned at six, though, I figured I might as well try. And as I approached this time, things looked a little more hopeful. La Club Jockey is at 2 Rue Rabelais: the end of a street whose other side seems to consist entirely of the Israeli embassy. The metal railings left a little pathway to the front door, before closing off the rest of the road entirely. The officer didn't stop me to ask for a name or an invitation or a ticket. I guess he was there to protect the neighbours.

I trotted up the front steps, a little surprised I'd even got that far, walked quickly past reception – you always have to look like you know where you're going – and followed someone else down into the basement. There, I picked up a celebratory cocktail stick of prosciutto ham and melon, ate it, and then retreated to the toilet to turn on my dictaphone and drop Nick another email: “just walked in. No security”.

Nick Surgey is the director for research at the Centre for Media and Democracy in the States. It's his job to keep on top of corporate lobbyists in the land of corporate lobbyists. He's been banned from the conferences of most of the big neoconservative organisations in the USA, and can map them out for you like he's describing the route from his front door to his local pub. He was heading to this event to stand outside and see who was going in when I'd run into him, a couple of hours earlier. I suggested attempting a gate–crash, and nipped back to my AirBnB to put a suit on. Nick, unfortunately, didn't have one with him.

Marcel Proust described Le Club Jockey as “the most exclusive club in the world” and “the sanctuary of the elite”. And here's the thing about exclusive clubs. The clientele don't like being frisked. Where the hostel bar which activists made their base asked for ID and searched bags at the door, access Le Club depends not on waving formal invitations, but knowing informal rules: wear the right clothes, swagger the right amount, behave like you damned well have every right to be there, and no one bats an eyelid. Five minutes after walking through the front door, I was shaking hands with Al Gore.

Looking back at two weeks in Paris, this evening was perhaps the most informative moment; not because of anything anyone said, but because of who was there; not because of any great scoop, but because who sips fine wine with whom tells you as much about politics as the rules and laws they publish; not because of any formal wrongdoing, but because the brutal power of the powerful so often comes in firm handshakes and charming chit–chat.

The Edison Electric Institute (EEI), our hosts for the night, is the representative group for publicly listed electricity companies in the USA. Where usually coal and gas lobbyists push very different lines, these guys have lined the industries up together. And while they were in Paris talking about how much they care about climate change, back in the US, they are on the front line of the fight to stop Obama's attempts to reduce America's greenhouse gasses.

Their chief lobbyist, Todd Wyn, has, Nick tells me, been doling out advice to state legislators on how to block the White House's clean power plan: encouraging states to submit bare–bones proposals for how to cut emissions to the Environmental Protection Agency, and then sue when the EPA tries to impose something better. Documents uncovered by the Washington Post from 2013 showed that it also “waged a campaign”, as the paper put it, to stop the rise of rooftop solar power.

As well as being a big player on its own, the organisation is active in the notorious free market lobby group ALEC, a coalition which even Shell and BP felt they had to leave because of its aggressive campaigning against climate science and action. According to Pollutorwatch, my hosts for the night “lead this charge” within ALEC, and Wyn himself, who they describe as a climate denier, was previously director of ALEC's energy, environment and agriculture task force: co–ordinating the fight against climate action in the centre of world power.

Moments after I met him, Gore was introduced first by a former EEI chair called Tony Early, then by Theodor Roosevelt IV, who chairs the climate change think–tank C2ES, which receives around a third of its funding from the oil industry. Early, meanwhile, turns out to be the former chairman and CEO of Detroit based DTE Energy, an electricity and gas company with seven large coal power stations which was criticised for, in his time there, being one of 30 major US corporations to pay more for lobbying than they did on income tax. He's since moved on to lead the Pacific Gas and Electric Company, who talk a good game on climate change, but remain members of the EEI.

Once Gore had politely welcomed everyone with a few inspiring words, more old jokes, and no challenge of his hosts, I spent the evening circling the room. Almost everyone seemed to be living in Washington DC and working for one or other the city's labyrinth of think–tanks and industry lobby groups. In one case, I had imposed on me a lengthy lecture about the importance of carbon capture and storage; which seems to be one of the fossil fuel industry's key messages here.

Skulking by the bar I found David Hone, Shell's head of climate change whom I'd met the night before. Then, he'd explained to me that oil companies couldn't answer my questions in public because they can't say that they don't see holding warming of the planet to two degrees as “a given”. This time, he introduced me to the man he was chatting with: a lobbyist for the aviation industry who had worked for “Daddy Bush” in the White House and been a lawyer for Dubya in Florida in 2000, “counting hanging chads”, as Hone put it. Our American friend said that Al Gore had politely pretended to remember him and that the negotiations were going well, from his perspective.

Also in the sanctuary of the elite that night were a number of America's climate negotiators. They'd spent long days trying to secure a deal delivering action on climate change, and, it seemed, were spending their Sunday night sharing gossip, canapés, bottles of magnificent wine with people who have spent years ensuring the deal will fail.

A couple of days later, I interviewed Greenpeace's Executive Director. Speaking about the fossil fuel industry, he said: “slave owners were very respectable in certain parts of the world. They were invited to the events of the monarchy and certain parts of the political establishment. They were seen as respectable gentlemen of society. In the same way today that the fossil fuel executives are treated.”

He wasn't quite right. That night in Paris, the carbon–heavy companies weren't invited to an event by the modern 'monarchy'. They were the hosts.

The deal signed last week may nudge the world in the right direction. But look at who can summon whom to sip wine, nibble canapés and perform witty speeches for them, and it's no wonder that it does little to upset an apple cart that's headed rapidly towards a cliff edge.

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