Watch 23 Years of Climate Negotiations in 3 Minutes
Is the international climate change conference in Paris, which Pope Francis has called “the last effective opportunity” to contain the threat of global warming, going to make any difference at all? That largely depends on what you mean by "difference."
According to climate scientists, only one difference matters: preventing an average rise in global temperatures of 2 degrees Celsius over the pre-industrial era. The world is likely to cross the 1-degree threshold by the end of the year. If global leaders can find a way to prevent temperatures from rising above the 2-degree mark, we can avoid total catastrophe—and live to learn with partial catastrophe. Alternatively, allowing temperatures to exceed that level means, in the words of one scientist, "leaving behind the world as we know it."
That, however, is a difference we know the Paris talks will not make. The cuts in greenhouse gas emissions that 180 national governments have made in advance of the talks simply do not add up. In a best-case scenario, negotiators will achieve a consensus in Paris that will bring us to a 3-degree rise by the turn of the century. That means the loss of half of the world's major forests, continuing acidification of the oceans, superstorms, scorching hot summers every year, and sea level rises that obliterate entire island nations.
That's if the meeting is successful. If it ends in debacle, as the 2009 Copenhagen conference did, the world could be on track instead for a 4-degree rise or higher. The consequences of that are unspeakable.
There are other differences the conference can make, however. At the Copenhagen meeting, rich countries agreed to create the Green Climate Fund to finance the efforts of poor countries to reduce emissions and to adapt to the climate change that they are experiencing. So far, the Green Climate Fund has left poor countries unimpressed. The fund-raising goal of $10 billion, which was already lowered from $15 billion, was barely met. Donor nations are insisting on shifting more of the money into loans instead of grants, and on putting in control financial institutions such as the World Bank. Much of the decision making has been carried out in secret.
Fixing the Green Climate Fund would go a long way toward removing the biggest obstacle to climate negotiations since the drafting of the Kyoto Protocol: the distrust between rich and poor nations.
But the biggest difference the conference can make will happen regardless of what occurs inside its meeting rooms. For a moment, the Paris talks will focus worldwide media attention on the crisis at hand. That won’t fix the problem, but it’s hard to imagine a correction of the current course without climate change on the front page of every major newspaper and site.
To that end, activist groups have been preparing for months to mobilize hundreds of thousands of people to flood the streets of cities around the world at the conference's conclusion. Plans to carry out massive civil disobediences in Paris on Dec. 12 have been curtailed by a ban on political protest put in place by the French government following the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks. Activists in Paris are looking for new ways to make their voices heard in the wake of the ban. Their message: We need a global mass movement to match the scale of the climate change crisis because governments will never do enough on their own.
That message is more than a slogan. Whether the Paris conference makes any difference in the long run, then, will have a lot less to do with politicians and delegates haggling over “thus”es and “shall”s and “therefore”s and more to do with whether the rest of us resolve to stop waiting on them.