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With the COP15 clock ticking, world awaits results

COPENHAGEN, DENMARK — If you like dramatic endings, keep your eyes on COP15.

COPENHAGEN, DENMARK — If you like dramatic endings, keep your eyes on COP15. After years of planning, months of anticipation and weeks of debate, the final hours of the climate talks have arrived, and countless big-name policy drivers have come to enjoy the show. (Hillary Rodham Clinton, Nancy Pelosi and Charlie Rangel joined our ranks Thursday, to give a few Ameri-centric examples.)

My temporary home-away-from-home, the press briefing room (great fold-out drawing desks), has never been this crowded. Back in the good old days, only a handful of journalists spent their time here — perhaps 20 or 30, total — but now the room is filled to the third tier, and some guy from the Economist is in my usual seat.

The last 24 hours have been a roller-coaster of on-again, off-again politics, with the talks toggling between “stalled” to “progressing” every few hours.

The general consensus was that a deal was hopeless, but as the day stretched on and talks resumed, the folks in the seats next to me started to admit that an agreement may once again be in the forecast. (I refrained from bringing up the wait-and-see attitude I’ve been promoting all week.)

We’re told that President Obama will arrive about 8 a.m. today and, more importantly, depart at 5 p.m. Sharp. I’ve been to a handful of presidential events, and I’ve never seen the president’s departure time advertised so heavily. It’s a pretty clear message: The deadline has arrived.

That left fewer than 24 hours for the negotiators to come out from under the grumpy rock.

The key sticking point, de momento: verification. Or as Secretary Clinton re-branded it, transparency. The United States insists tools are needed to ensure other countries are living up to the their commitments (looking at you, China), and China … er, the other countries … don’t want prying eyes on their turf.

This is a significant difference between the two gorillas at Copenhagen, but even so, we’ve heard things are moving.

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In one unusually candid moment during the secretary of state’s press availability, we learned that U.S. negotiators are debating individual words — words like “should” and “shall” — which will outline our responsibilities under any political (and, eventually, legal) agreement. In most instances, the world wants a “shall” and the United States wants a “should.”

Debate ensues. And the debate will almost certainly continue until the last available minute.

One semi-related note: I’ve been trying to avoid overplaying the United States versus China flavor. This conference isn’t about creating divisions, and the language the two countries are using is usually diplomatic.

Even so, it’s hard to ignore the “we’ve arrived” power of the China delegation as the nation’s members storm around the Bella Center, chased by a mob of cameras. It’s a bit eye-opening to see that sort of braggadocio coming from a country other than the United States, and at least in climate circles, it’s clear the world is becoming multilateral again.

Soon, we’ll finally learn how this story ends … or, if you’re a cartoonist who likes to take the long view, how this story begins.

Most people I’ve spoken with agree that something will be signed, and I’m sure every leader who gambled on coming here will herald whatever it is as an “important step,” a “remarkable milestone” and a “defining moment.”

But the world’s people aren’t waiting for speeches. They’re waiting for the fine print. They’ll soon get it.