Be careful of the words you say,
Keep them short and sweet.
You never know, from day to day,
Which ones you’ll have to eat.

Today I had my first early-morning meeting. This week’s meetings all start at 4 am but I must admit that I stayed in bed a bit longer and joined a later session that started at 5:30. Bad boy!

I think the diplomats must be tiring too. The meeting was a relatively uneventful one in which everyone just agreed with everyone else. Well, more or less. There was some to-and-fro on the issue of whether the last paragraph of the session’s informal note should say that “the 2020 roundtable is serving…” rather than “the 2020 roundtable served” or, as suggested by a Canada in compromising mood, “the 2020 roundtable was considered”. It was very hard to see why this mattered but, as usual, robustly polite positions were taken and then the various groups and nations positioned themselves on one-side or the other.

Of course, words do matter. Words are a diplomat’s tool and their only means of influencing what their negotiations ultimately produce. It is therefore right and proper that every word be weighed carefully and that all participants be wary of traps set by a craftily constructed phrase with a nuance and implication that only emerges later.

But for me, this approach to language is uncomfortable and unfamiliar. I’m used to science. In science we also try to choose words carefully but the only criteria that matters is whether the word accurately conveys the intended meaning without any unintended, alternate interpretation. Diplomacy, it seems to me, involves an altogether more subtle verbal game and I’m particularly impressed that this game has been played at this UNFCCC meeting entirely in English. This should give the English speaking world a significant advantage but I see no sign of that whatsoever.

Dave Waltham