10 Things To Know About The U.N. Climate Talks In Paris

A piece of ice floats in Los Glaciares National Park in Santa Cruz Province, Argentina. (Getty Images)
A piece of ice floats in Los Glaciares National Park in Santa Cruz Province, Argentina. (Getty Images)

Leaders from around the world will converge on Paris beginning Nov. 30 for the 2015 U.N. Climate Change Conference. The two-week event is designed to allow countries the chance to come to an agreement on stifling climate change.

Below are 10 questions and answers that should better prepare you for the conference and what to expect during and after its completion.

1. What's at stake and why should I care?

It's no exaggeration to say that what happens in Paris will affect the future of the planet. Greenhouse gas emissions keep going up, and scientists say that continuing with business as usual will produce rapid and devastating warming. This won't just be bad news for polar bears and beach front homeowners. Unchecked warming means that dependable food and water supplies could be disrupted, dangerous pathogens could spread to new areas, and rising seas could remake maps. What's more, extreme weather, plus worse droughts and more fierce wildfires, could become increasingly common. Security experts even worry that scarce and shifting resources could lead to violence.

2. What needs to happen to stop climate change?

Many nations want a Paris agreement that will signal a long-term goal of net ZERO emissions in the second half of this century. That doesn't mean actually producing zero greenhouse gas emissions. But it does mean producing no more than the planet can absorb without raising temperatures. Doing this would mean a dramatic transformation of the world's entire energy system, turning away from fossil fuels to other options like wind, solar, and nuclear power. The task is absolutely staggering—but scientists say it can be done, if the political will is there.

3. Well, is there really the political will to do all this?

UN watchers say the stars are aligned like never before. Before the summit, all countries—rich and poor--were asked to come forward with their own voluntary pledges for how they would aid the global fight against climate change. Over 150 countries have submitted national plans to the UN, and that in and of itself is a huge deal. Some nations say how they'll cut emissions, while others pledge to do things like preserve forest cover or use more clean energy. Independent experts have calculated that if the world is currently on track for warming of about 4.5 degrees Celsius, these pledges would reduce that to about 2.7 to 3.7 degrees—which is real progress, before the Paris summit even starts.

4. What does the Paris agreement really need to have in it?

The goal of Paris is to produce a short, simple agreement – maybe a dozen pages –that will satisfy nearly 200 nations. Here's what some observers think are key elements for a credible, ambitious plan forward:

  • Countries need to agree to come back every few years to increase their pledges and keep doing more and more to reduce greenhouse gas emissions
  • The UN must have a rigorous system of accountability and transparency to make sure nations will actually keep their promises
  • The poorest countries of the world need support to both adapt to a warming world and to adopt new, low-carbon energy technologies

5. There's talk of a 2 degree Celsius warming limit. Will this agreement hit that target?

That target comes from an international consensus 5 years ago, when nations agreed to limit warming to just about 2 degrees Celsius (about 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit) over pre-industrial times. The thinking was that this would avert the worst effects of climate change. But no one thinks Paris will get the world that far. Instead, the aim of Paris is to come up with an agreement that requires countries to make increasingly ambitious efforts to combat global warming over time, to put the world on track to meet that target in the future.

6. Rich and poor countries are all part of this thing, but will rich countries have to do more?

There's a lot of tension between the developed world and the developing world when it comes to climate change. Some developing countries such as India say they're in no position to commit to an absolute reduction in greenhouse gases when they're trying to bring economic advancement to millions of people who currently live in poverty. They need a supply of energy, and lots of it. What's more, poorer nations want financial compensation if they're going to agree to do things like preserve rainforests that will suck up carbon dioxide. They note that developed nations chopped down their own trees long ago and have burned enormous amounts of fossil fuels, but now they're being told they can't do the same—so they think the developed world should pay up. So-called "financing" issues will be a major hurdle that negotiators will have to clear in Paris.

7. How is the UN trying to make this deal happen?

Basically, for two weeks, they're going to sequester a bunch of diplomats in a conference center outside of Paris. There's been years of preparation leading up to this conference, and organizers expect tens of thousands of people to gather. Besides the delegates and diplomats there to do the actual wrangling, tons of businesses, activist organizations, and scientists will be there as well. While some outside events may be curtailed because of the recent terror attacks, the negotiations should go on as scheduled.

8. But hey, hasn't the UN been trying to rein in greenhouse gas emissions for two decades?

It's certainly true that past efforts have had serious shortcomings. Top emitters like the United States refused to join the landmark 1997 Kyoto Protocol, and it didn't include any developing countries, like China. Then the 2009 Copenhagen summit ended in a shambles, with a weak agreement thrown together at the last minute by politicians who didn't want to leave the talks with nothing. But things are different this time. The fact that almost all countries have submitted voluntary pledges shows that governments feel pressure to participate. Both the United States and China have taken a leadership role. And major public figures like Pope Francis have been urging action, saying there's a moral duty.

9. What are the big fights going on in the negotiations?

Besides arguing over how much rich nations should pay the poor, there's some nations that simply are not excited about a zero carbon future. Oil and gas producing countries, for example, aren't so keen to leave their valuable assets in the ground. Another hot-button issue is "loss and damage." That's the idea that there should be some mechanism to compensate the citizens of places that simply cannot adapt to climate change–for example, small island states that could disappear under rising seas.

10. What if Paris ends with a whimper?

Scientists say that delaying action is just going to make changes harder and more expensive in the future, and that really the world should have started this transformation decades ago. If reliance on fossil fuels continues and produces unrestrained climate change, experts predict dramatic shifts in our familiar maps and weather patterns. Computer simulations show that New York would have the climate of Miami and melting ice would flood major cities around the world. Poor countries would be the hardest hit by a changing world, as they have the fewest resources to adapt.

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