It’s time for the governments of the world to struggle with climate change policy again. Every year, late in November and early in December, representatives of 195 nations gather for two weeks to try to negotiate global responses to the increasingly fragile state of earth’s climate. Warsaw, Poland, hosts this year’s conference of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the parent organization of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. Its goal: reducing global warming and mitigating unavoidable temperature increases.
The UN conference aims to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere “at a level that will limit dangerous interference with the climate system.” The meeting takes place from now through next Friday at Warsaw’s National Stadium. International delegates are working toward a universal UN-backed treaty to be in force by 2015 and take effect by 2020. To achieve this goal, participating countries must agree on standard limits to future greenhouse gas emissions.
The community of world nations launched initial climate change talks in December 1990, soon after the global threat was defined. Four years later, the group formally assembled a UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. The talks have been agonizingly slow to achieve consensus, probably because of the unwieldy number of participants and the conflicting priorities of different interest blocs. Hopes reached their height in 2009 in Copenhagen, Denmark, that a comprehensive agreement was in sight.
115 heads of state, including U.S. President Barack Obama, attended the Copenhagen meeting. Days before it started, an anonymous hacker stole and leaked more than 1,000 casual e-mails among scientists at the University of East Anglia, arousing furious and ill-informed attacks on climate science and crucifying outspoken researchers like Michael Mann. Copenhagen ended by accomplishing practically nothing, demoralizing most of the participants, and fueling skepticism and denial of the science of climate change.
Two years later, in Durban, South Africa, delegates agreed to put together a new treaty by 2015 that would come into force in 2020. At Doha, Qatar, last year, dissension colored the meeting, threatening deadlock. The group reached agreement on black carbon emissions, and the EU made substantial financial pledges. Not until about noon on an extra “overtime” day (Saturday, December 8) did the UNFCCC manage to reaffirm its intention to extend the Kyoto Protocol. At the last minute, Poland and other eastern European nations reversed their stand on excess carbon credits and the Middle Eastern states divided in their views on mitigation.
Leading into the Warsaw climate proceedings
This year’s UNFCCC anticipates a higher and more imminent scale of world endangerment than any gathering before it.
The meeting opened yesterday (Monday, November 11, 2013) in traditional fashion. Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz, Mayor of Warsaw, welcomed delegates to the city. Abdullah Bin Hamad Al-Attiyah, president of last year’s UNFCCC in Qatar, turned over the proceedings to Marcin Korolec, the incoming president. Korolec invited delegates to a welcoming reception that evening.
Rajendra Kumar Pachauri, Chair of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC, both spoke at the opening.
“We are the first human beings to ever breathe air with 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide [the highest level in at least 3 million years],” said Figueres.
Pachauri echoed her concerns. The world must act on global warming, Pachauri believes, to avoid passing on “a lousy, spoilt, and defiled planet” to future generations.
“Are we going to create a planet where there’s tension, where there’s conflict, where there’s desperation? That’s not going to help any one of us. Are we going to see islands disappear? Are we going to see agriculture and food systems being affected, human health being affected? …The projections of the IPCC working group report are very, very clear. The impacts are going to become progressively negative and they’re going to be the worst for some of the most underprivileged societies on earth.” (Quoted: Pachauri’s remarks at a recent conference on sustainable business.)
If no actions are taken now…
The possible consequences of inaction now may include sea level rise of almost a meter by the end of the century, the IPCC chairman says, and a temperature increase of 2 degrees F./4.8 degrees C. Many coastal locations in North America, including New York and Miami, will be swamped, as well as sea level locations in all other continents. Small island states in the Pacific and elsewhere and areas the size of half the nation of Bangladesh will be erased from the map entirely. The temperature increase will also be disastrous. Any rise exceeding about 2 degrees Celsius threatens to eradicate up to 30% of the species on earth.
Several important recent announcements buttress these key findings. “The World Meteorological Organization warned Wednesday that the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere spiked to a record high last year. And a U.N. report Tuesday raised doubts that any climate agreement can limit the rise in global temperatures to an amount that scientists consider low enough to avoid serious harm — 2 degrees Celsius compared with pre-industrial levels.”
A recent open-access special issue of the International Journal of Global Warming examined existing climate stressors in nine vulnerable countries and four pathways for subsequent loss and damage:
• Existing coping/adaptation to biophysical impact is not enough;
• Measures have costs (including non-economic) that cannot be regained;
• Despite short-term merits, measures have negative effects in the longer term; or
• No measures are adopted – or possible – at all.
Barriers and limits to adaptation include the following:
• Increasingly extreme weather,
• Unreliable water supplies,
• Crop failures and famine,
• Loss of both traditional subsistence and high-tech livelihoods,
• Increasing and destructive coping measures (eating less, selling off productive assets in order to buy food, reducing schooling years of schooling),
• Deteriorating human welfare, and
• Negative impacts on intangibles such as social cohesion, culture, and civilization.
The Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC AR5 WG2), leaked and released earlier this year in working draft form, makes clear the following points about climate change:
• Warming of the atmosphere and ocean system is unequivocal.
• Many of the associated impacts, such as sea level change, have occurred since 1950 at historically unprecedented rates.
• Human activities directly and indirectly influence climate changes.
• Global warming will continue if we continue allowing greenhouse gases to accumulate.
Expectations of the conference
Speaking as the meeting opened, Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres discussed expectations in some important areas. “We must clarify finance that enables the entire world to move towards low-carbon development,” she said. “We must launch the construction of a mechanism that helps vulnerable populations to respond to the unanticipated effects of climate change.”
Several of these vulnerable groups caucused on Monday: the Alliance of Small Island States, African Group, SICA Countries, Environmental Integrity Group, Group of 77 and China, Coalition for Rainforest Nations, and Delegation of Nepal on behalf of the Least Developed Countries Group. The dilemmas these groups face may play key roles in the upcoming bargaining.
Now that the talks have begun, delegates must seek an agreement that can satisfy these special interests and also concur with the domestic policies of the world’s wide array of countries. Activists are trying to keep expectations low, according to Politico.
“The best-case scenario is major agreements on the size, scope and details of a new plan, which nations are aiming to sign in 2015, to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions and pay for adaptation measures. But as any international climate observer will warn you, don’t expect the best case scenario.”
Others, like Alex Morales of Bloomberg News, expect this conference, like many others, to fail from the start on technicalities. He cites many observers who feel that the UNFCCC’s inadequate rules of order and debate doom any meaningful international collaboration.
A major stumbling block is how to help the world’s poorer nations adapt to climate change. During the Copenhagen talks, developed and rapidly developing countries proposed to provide $100 billion a year in financial aid by 2020. At Doha, the European Union reasserted this goal. However, current economic realities in the developed countries–aging populations, health care issues, and war/defense commitments–may preclude such a solution.
Financial assistance could come from private capital. This might require using leverage in both developed and developing nations, perhaps through pricing carbon and allowing the market to take its own course. Such measures are anathema to some in the wealthy nations, including and especially the United States, Australia, and Canada.
The BBC envisions a “looser agreement” emerging among conference delegates. This might allow nations to set their own greenhouse gas targets, subject to some degree of review.
Jennifer Morgan, director of the climate and energy program at the World Resources Institute, summed up the tone at the beginning of the two-week climate negotiation:
“We clearly are not on track both in speed and scale. There’s a large gap that needs to be closed, and the longer you wait to close the gap, the more expensive it becomes.”