PARIS, FRANCE — The first thing Ryan Mearns and Hamish Laing told BuzzFeed News Monday night at the global climate talks here in the French capital was that there was free coffee available at the German pavilion.
These two New Zealanders know their shit. Not just about where to get free coffee at the Paris talks — which are now in their second week and aim to reach a global agreement to halt climate change — but about policy, experts, and the various drafts of the global agreement.
Mearns and Laing, 22 and 24 respectively, have become unlikely hero-archivists at the climate conference thanks to a sprawling, very subjective, and GIF-filled Google doc. Two things make this doc special: First, it's really the only comprehensive, publicly accessible overview of what has been happening here; and second, it's exactly what you might expect from a couple of twentysomething dudes.
Which is to say, you might actually want to read it.
For example, here's how the pair covered a Wednesday night meeting:
This will impact on developing countries flexibility on Global Stocktake and review. But we trust you President #Swoon
A few lines later, after a section about comments from South Africa, they dropped in a Waterboy GIF.
That's a pattern that repeats again and again in the document, which is a mix of technical details, hashtags, and GIFs.
And then there are the moments that aren't being captured anywhere else, like this gem:
Chair: Hopes Saudi had a good night last night.
And then a few lines later:
Saudi: Gets worked up and speaks of capacity issue of developing countries, but starts off also wishing the Chair a good night's sleep.
Chair: welcomes Sudan to his side of the room. Wasn't used to them sitting so close.
No one else is doing this. For one thing, journalists are blocked from many of the most significant meetings at the talks, making the process fairly opaque to the public. Laing and Mearns, on the other hand, are "observers" — a classification reserved for various advocates and interested parties that gives them greater access.
Most reporters are also focused on filing specific stories, or looking at technical developments. And most journalists are playing it fairly straight and jargon-y.
"Everybody who is here is way to deep," Mearns said.
Laing said their project aims to be different — something people can just open "and be like, 'Oh, this is what's going on.'"
Mearns and Laing have been at the talks since they began last week. After spending the first few days observing, Mearns said they realized "no one gets to really know where countries stand or what positions they take, and so we were just sort of tracking the negotiations and sending it out to a bunch of friends."
Initially, that's all the project was: notes for friends. But somewhere along the line — as they were sharing and tweeting the link to the doc among themselves — major players in the media began to notice. Mearns pointed to an initial tweet by Mother Jones reporter Tim McDonnell, and said things began growing from there.
Several BuzzFeed News staffers noticed the link to the doc being shared widely on Twitter late last week. Slate then wrote that the duo was creating the only "full public record" of the talks.
In the time since, the doc continues to be widely tweeted, and Mearns and Laing themselves remain the subjects of media attention.
Talking to Mearns and Laing on Monday was like talking to a band after they've had a hit first record and are trying to figure out their second album while staying true to their roots. They discussed trying to maintain the doc's tone and the need to add a disclaimer at the top stating that it is "not verbatim."
"We got really scared," Mearns said of the attention.
But if anything, the doc has become even more freewheeling and GIF-heavy over time. After the latest draft of the climate agreement went public Wednesday, for example, they dropped in a link — and this Macaulay Culkin GIF:
This is Mearns and Laing's first time at a global climate conference, and they're some of the youngest people attending. When the the Kyoto Protocols were signed in 1997, they were small children, Google docs and Twitter didn't exist, and GIFs weren't really a thing.
Now, on the verge of a major world agreement, a historical record is being kept by two of the youngest people in attendance on a new medium that was kind of shared accidentally online. It's a #WholeNewWorld.
"This is, like, diplomacy at its grittiest," Mearns added. "It's actually quite funny."