The Age of Humans The Age of Humans

What Will Make the Paris Climate Talks a Success?

This episode of Generation Anthropocene explores the history of the UN climate summit and what’s different at this year’s event

A crowd sends aloft a balloon representation of Earth at Piazza Venezia during a climate change rally in Rome a day before the COP21 conference in Paris. (Antonio Masiello/NurPhoto/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

­This week, leaders from more than 190 countries have gathered in Paris to discuss ways to curb human-driven global warming before temperatures reach a dangerous tipping point. Called COP21, the two-week event is the 21st annual Conference of the Parties, a United Nations summit established in the 1990s with the goal of reaching international consensus on a plan to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions.

It sounds straightforward, and the scientific evidence for climate change and its effects is overwhelming. But considering that this is the 21st attempt at drafting a plan, it's clear that the negotiations can get complex and that reaching consensus will be a challenge.

So what has happened with these climate talks so far, and what will be different in Paris?

To get the download on COP21, Generation Anthropocene talked with Stanford researcher Aaron Strong, who studies climate policy and has attended some of the past U.N. meetings. Strong points out that many countries did adopt the Kyoto Protocol back in 1997. That agreement bound all signing members to reduce emissions to an average of 5 percent against 1990 levels. But the protocol had a stipulation that put most of the burden on developed nations, and that proved problematic.

"A few months before we went to Kyoto at the end of 1997, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution 95 to 0 ... that was a simple statement that said [that] we will not ratify anything that doesn’t include binding commitments from China and India and other major developing countries. We just won’t do it. Period," says Strong. That means Congress, for one, never ratified the Kyoto treaty.

This sparring between developed countries and developing nations has continued to be a sticking point, according to New York Times reporter Andy Revkin. After all, richer countries got rich over decades of unregulated fossil fuel use, while poorer nations are now being asked to forgo relatively cheap sources of energy in favor of greener technologies.

And while this debate has raged, some of those developing countries have seen economic booms that have increased their emissions.

"Some of the tension now is coming because there are countries that still call themselves developing countries ... and the United States and Europe are saying, Hey you guys—China, couple other countries—you’re no longer among the poor and struggling nations of the world, you need to do more,” Revkin told Generation Anthropocene.

For the Paris talks, the COP nations are trying a new approach, one that asks each country to pledge to what it believes is the most realistic course of action for its unique needs. In theory, each pledge can then be stitched together into a "bottom up" global agreement. With this plan in motion, what are the odds of success in Paris? Listen to the full interview above to find out.

About Victoria Jaggard

Victoria Jaggard is the science editor for Smithsonian.com. Her writing has appeared in Chemical & Engineering News, National Geographic, New Scientist and elsewhere.

Read more from this author |
Tags

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus