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Scientists called for ‘unprecedented’ action. But the global climate talks aren’t built for that.

"We cannot solve a crisis without treating it as a crisis," said one young activist.

Climate activists shout slogans as they stop in front of the COP24 UN Climate Change Conference venue during the March for Climate in a protest against global warming in Katowice, Poland, Saturday, Dec. 8, 2018. (Alik Keplicz / AP)
Climate activists shout slogans as they stop in front of the COP24 UN Climate Change Conference venue during the March for Climate in a protest against global warming in Katowice, Poland, Saturday, Dec. 8, 2018. (Alik Keplicz / AP)Read moreAlik Keplicz / AP

KATOWICE, Poland - Negotiators from nearly 200 nations drew close to a deal Friday that would nudge the world toward stronger targets for reducing carbon emissions and enshrine a clearer set of rules for how to get there.

But even amid the glimmers of progress at this year's climate summit, where more than 25,000 people have gathered in the heart of Poland's coal mining region, there was a deeper undercurrent of dismay. The world's best efforts, some participants concluded after two weeks of nonstop talks, would not nearly match the urgency of a problem that scientists have said will bring catastrophic consequences without major action over the next 12 years.

"Climate change is not something in our future. It's happening to us now," said Mohamed Nasheed, former president of the Maldives and chief of the island nation's negotiating team here. "We will not survive if business goes as usual."

Despite the lingering questions about the world's overall resolve, Friday brought signs that the gridlock that has defined much of these talks was beginning to ease. Delegates worked through the night, scrambling to produce the latest draft of a detailed "rule book" that will serve as a road map for how countries collectively implement the 2015 Paris climate accord.

The drafts released Friday morning, which stretched hundreds of pages, showed that diplomats had apparently reached key compromises. Those included language that would recognize the importance of an October U.N. report finding that the world would need to take "unprecedented" action by 2030 to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change.

According to one negotiator early Saturday, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the talks were ongoing, one major roadblock involved a standoff with Brazil over the details of carbon trading markets.

The report, produced by the nearly 100 scientists of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, set an increase in temperatures of 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels as the outer limit of what the world can tolerate without cataclysmic results. (The planet has already warmed by 1 degree.) The U.S. delegation - which has been engaged in the talks, despite President Trump's vow to withdraw the United States from the Paris agreement - had blocked acceptance of the report over the weekend.

"There is no documented historic precedent" for the sweeping changes to energy, transportation and other sectors that would be necessary to hold warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius, the scientists said, citing the need for a "rapid and far-reaching" transformation of human civilization.

But in Poland, the IPCC's findings on what the world would need to do to hold off the worst impacts of climate change collided with the reality of a bureaucratic process that requires consensus among nearly 200 nations. It was never designed to be nimble.

Instead of dramatic new commitments, diplomats were left to wrestle with what to outsiders may seem like semantics, arguing about whether to "welcome" or "note" or "recognize the role" of the report.

"You can't negotiate with the laws of physics," said Nasheed, who called the debate over how to acknowledge the report "madness." "You can't cut a deal with science."

Even as some were frustrated Friday with the seemingly plodding approach of the international process, others noted reasons for optimism.

Laurence Tubiana, a French diplomat who presided over the 2015 Paris talks and is considered a key architect of the landmark agreement, said that if drafts of this year's deal hold together, the summit will be judged a success.

The language she had seen, she said, was "pretty much right in line with what we need to implement Paris properly."

The achievements of Katowice, she acknowledged, were highly technical in nature, with no new grand pronouncements. But that, she said, was not what was required. "Sometimes we want everything to be a big splash," she said. "But that's not reality."

Before delegates could claim success, sticking points remained.

Plenty of divisions lingered Friday, the last official day of the 24th annual U.N. climate talks, known as COP 24. Nations continued to hash out the particulars of rules governing how transparent countries will have to be in reporting their emissions, how richer nations will help finance climate action in poorer nations and how countries can hold one another compatible on their progress.

Bedraggled diplomats and weary journalists braced for those last-minute fights to unfold into the weekend inside the sprawling Spodek conference center.

"Nobody is going to be 100 percent satisfied," Gou Haibo, a top Chinese negotiator, said early Friday afternoon. "But we hope [a compromise] can be accepted."

Gou called the proposed agreement "a balanced plan" and suggested that it would have been unrealistic to expect any monumental achievements at this year's gathering, since that kind of leap was never on the agenda.

"It's a process," he said, adding that a solution to climate change is "not going to be achieved only through this COP."

The United States, which played a pivotal role in brokering the Paris agreement under President Barack Obama, took on a far more understated position in the talks in Katowice.

The U.S. made waves early in the negotiations by its stand on the U.N. report - which was shared by Saudi Arabia, Russia and Kuwait - and by putting on a deliberately provocative defense of coal, oil and gas.

But behind the scenes, participants and observers said, the U.S. delegation generally played a quiet and, by some measures, constructive role. It focused its energies, for instance, on a push for transparency in countries' accounting of their emissions reductions.

Although Trump has made a pastime of railing against the Paris deal, observers said there was little evidence that his diplomats were trying to sabotage it.

Still, the dramatic change in U.S. climate policy under Trump was certainly felt here - if only for the void it left behind.

"It's not so much that they're throwing sand in the gears," said Steve Herz, senior international policy adviser for the Sierra Club. "It's that big global issues require U.S. leadership and resolve. When that's not there, it's a lot harder to broker deals."

One central question that remained Friday was how firmly the assembled nations would signal their intent to hold true to the emissions-cutting promises in Paris - and whether they would commit to ramp up those pledges in 2020.

The idea that countries would increase their ambition over time was a critical element of the Paris agreement. Scientists say that countries will have to triple their efforts if the world is going to stay below a 2-degree Celsius temperature rise. They will need five times more commitment to stay within 1.5 degrees.

That stark reality explains why many here came away disappointed by the apparent lack of urgency among governments.

Negotiators arriving at talks Friday were greeted at the cavernous conference hall by local Polish high school students who had gathered for a protest. They unfurled red-and-white letters spelling out "12 years left," and quietly made their plea.

"What about us?" they sang plaintively as impassive delegates hurried past.

"We wanted to be here when they decided our future," said Paulina Zurawka, 18. "But they're doing nothing."

The youth protest was spearheaded by Greta Thunberg, a 15-year-old Swedish climate activist who became somewhat of a celebrity at these talks with her impassioned calls for action. "We cannot solve a crisis without treating it as a crisis," she said in a rousing speech.

Kim van Sparrentak, a youth activist with the European Green Party, noted that the draft agreement made no mention of young people.

"For whom are we here?" she asked. "Are we just here to protect big corporations, or are we here to protect the future of the planet?"

Despite the disappointment, some who push for more ambition in the fight against climate change said they were willing to treat Friday's apparent outcome as a qualified success. The planned withdrawal of the world's largest economy - the United States - hadn't stopped the process. Negotiations were yielding results. Countries were finding common ground.

"To me it's often a miracle that they do find consensus and a way to move forward," said David Waskow, director of the international climate initiative at the World Resources Institute. "And when you make progress it actually moves the world forward."

The Washington Post’s Chris Mooney in Washington contributed to this report.