The 2015 Paris agreement represents a deep-rooted change in global climate governance. While existing scholarly assessments highlight central institutional features of the Paris shift, they tend to overlook its symbolic and discursive dimensions. Our analysis shows that the Paris architecture combines two core elements: an iterative pledge and review process to stimulate global climate action, and a ‘performative’ narrative aimed at aligning actors’ expectations on the prospect of a low-carbon future. We therefore suggest calling it an incantatory system of governance. We then examine the origins of the new approach and find that the rise of ‘soft law’ approaches and communicative techniques in global climate governance are both indicative of a broader process: the entry of management culture in international organisations. Against this backdrop, we examine the prospects, limitations and caveats of the new approach and discuss its wider implications for global politics.