Thursday, December 3, 2015

What You Need to Know About the Paris Climate Change Conference

Paris has been in the news a lot lately, but right now the big event is the 21st session of the Conference of the Parties (COP21) presented by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Yes, it's a mouthful, so let's just call it the Paris Climate Change Conference (though COP21 works too).

This year's meeting is critical. Human activity has been significantly warming the climate of our planet. Action is necessary to reduce, and eventually eliminate, the carbon emissions causing this warming. The COP21 meeting of world leaders and their representatives is designed to reach a substantive agreement on how to do that.

It's not an easy task. The United States has created the majority of the global problem and remains the highest per capita emitter of carbon. Europe is also a historical high contributor. China was slower to catch up to our wasteful ways but in the last couple of years has surpassed the U.S. with annual emissions. Meanwhile, there are many developing and underdeveloped countries that had little to do with causing the problem (so far) but who could become net contributors if they "modernize" to our resource use levels. In any case, these non-contributor countries face much, if not most, of the impact. That means finding a solution has to take into consideration historical AND current AND future contributions to carbon emissions PLUS the disproportionate impacts on people who may not have received the benefits they are paying for in impact.

The need for a substantive agreement has become even more overt in recent years. We continue to see increasing global temperatures. All of the hottest years on record have come in the last 2 decades. 2015 is almost certainly going to blow past the heat record just set in 2014 (and with El Nino likely to hang around a while, 2016 may do the same). Mass migrations of refugees continue to result from climatic stress and the wars that are so often tied to fossil fuel acquisition. Sea levels continue to rise and the oceans continue to acidify. Arctic sea ice continues to shrink and the West Antarctic Ice Shelf has reached a point of no return on its breakup. As the climate continues to warm we can expect more severe extreme events, more droughts in some places and floods in others, and more mass migrations of refugees.

On a positive note, if there can be such a thing, the United States, China, India, Europe, and most of the world's other nations seem intent on reaching a workable and substantive agreement in Paris. There are huge challenges to be sure, but the will is there.

Exceptions, of course, include the Republican party in the United States who have actively worked against U.S. interests to a level bordering treason. The Republicans are seen as childish and buffoonish and backward by most of the world, which is ironic given how Republicans view themselves as "holier than thou" most of the time. It does appear, however, that the world is ignoring Republicans as they marginalize themselves and following the leadership of President Obama, who has managed to get commitments from previously slow-to-act parties such as China, industry, and the semi-developed states that are struggling to grow their economies but faced with the fact they can't do it the wasteful way the US, Europe and China has done.

Most heads of state have already made an appearance in Paris but the work of COP21 is still going on in earnest. There are several places you can follow the status of negotiations, including the UNFCCC website, the COP21 Information Hub, the Sustainable Innovation Forum website, and many news information articles