Hours before the historic Paris climate accord was to be ratified in a final vote, someone noticed that a word had been changed in the final draft of the text—a single word that threatened to derail the entire deal.
As reported in the Washington Post, someone changed the word “should” to “shall.” Now, it seems like a little thing, but given that the words were in reference to sweeping new legal and financial obligations, it mattered. A lot.
When it comes to legally binding terminology, there’s a big difference between “should” and “shall.” Whereas “should” is a kind of wishy-washy call to action, the word “shall” implies an obligation, and this is why Secretary of State John Kerry could not abide the unexpected change. The New York Times reports:
Throughout the process, the longer and less binding “should” was a deliberate part of the international agreement, put there to establish that the richest countries, including the United States, felt obligated to pony up money to help poor countries adapt to climate change and make the transition to sustainable energy systems. “Shall” meant something altogether different, American officials said.
When “shall” was spotted in the document on Saturday, Secretary of State John Kerry called his French counterpart and made it clear that unless a switch was made, France could not count on American support for the agreement.
“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,’ ” Mr. Kerry told reporters after delegates had accepted the deal by consensus Saturday night, amid cheering and the celebratory stamping of feet.
Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed, and within hours the wording within the 31-page text was reverted back to the original “should.” A subsequent vote affirmed the Paris Accord, and all was saved.
No one knows if the typo was an honest mistake, or someone’s deliberate attempt to give the accord an entirely new meaning. But as Kerry said afterward, “It was a mistake. I am convinced.”
Email the author at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him at @dvorsky. Top image by Associated Press