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What You Should Know About the Paris Climate Talks

Image Source: Thinkstock
Image Source: Thinkstock

After the morning flurry of breakfast, backpacks, and found tennis shoes departs for school, I spend some of my precious alone time cleaning up the debris. Why? Like all parents, I want the best for my kids. And that means a clean, functional house.

Our planet’s our home, too. We all want it to be clean and functional for our kids and the gcenerations that come after them. And that’s why climate negotiators are meeting in Paris for the next two weeks to hash out an agreement that cleans up our planet’s atmosphere.

Paris is expecting 40,000 participants representing 194 nations. President Obama, Canada’s Justin Trudeau, and China’s Xi Jinping are all expected to attend. There are even rumors that Pope Francis might make an appearance. In the shadow of the Paris attacks, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, also called COP21, hopes to shift the mood in the City of Light from one of despair to one of hope.

There’s good reason to think it might happen. Speaking at the Australian National University, Christiana Figueres, the Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC says, “In the lead up to Paris, every day there is another piece of good news.”

Here are nine things to know about this momentous meeting:

What’s the goal?

To get every member of the committee to commit to cuts in their carbon dioxide emissions. Most nations have already submitted their plans. We turned in our homework on time (gold star for us!) and said we’d commit to decreasing emissions by 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels.

A piece of that good news that Figueres was talking about: Even the world’s largest exporter of crude oil, Saudi Arabia, slid their plan in a month under the deadline, committing to cutting 130 million tons of greenhouse gasses.

Why are carbon dioxide emissions such a big deal?

The problem with CO2 in our atmosphere is that it packs excess heat, leading to a lot more problems.

Some of the worst:

Heat is the fuel for the weather on our planet. The rise in temperature has increased the number and intensity of extreme weather events. Just this month, NOAA researchers showed the fingerprints of climate change on floods in Canada, blizzards in Nepal, and drought in the Middle East. Climate change worsened weather on every continent but Antarctica.

Seawater expands and ice melts at higher temperatures. Higher seas and bigger storms make catastrophic events like Superstorm Sandy more dangerous and more likely. If we continue down the track we’re on, the seas will be 2 to 3 feet higher by the end of the century.

Biology changes more slowly than these climate shifts, and it’s having a hard time keeping up. By some estimates, one-fourth of earth’s species could be extinct by 2050. Crops like corn don’t grow as well in the heat, either. Global production is expected to drop 24 percent by 2050. The range of heat-loving microorganisms that spread diseases is expanding north and south. Mosquitos that spread dengue fever, used to be confined to the tropics, but now, outbreaks regularly occur along the Texas-Mexico border. Globally, cases are up 30-fold.

But really, what’s the worst-case scenario?

At the 2009 COP in Copenhagen, leaders agreed that a temperature increase of 2 °C or about 3.6 °F, was the limit. If we exceed that, they said, the effects could be both severe and irreversible.

So far, we’ve increased the global temperature about 1°C, which means we’re alarmingly close. Last year, 2014, was the hottest year on record. And now, 2015 is on pace to take away 2014’s title.

That sounds bad.

You’re right, it is. We’re currently adding CO2 to the atmosphere at the fastest rates our planet has ever experienced. Atmospheric carbon dioxide increased from about 320 parts per million in 1950 to nearly 400 parts per million today, and we add about 2 ppm more each year. (You can check the weekly CO2 levels here.) Burning gas, coal, and natural gas is responsible for about two-thirds of that. The other third is from deforestation.

Many climate scientists believe we need to keep the carbon dioxide in our atmosphere below 450 ppm to keep our planet in a condition similar to what we know and love, though others warn that even that might not be low enough.

There’s some subtlety to the numbers. Figueres says the limits imposed by the Paris agreement aren’t meant to be the final answer to the problem of climate change. Rather, it’s a way to get everyone to work together. “The two degrees is not a moment in time, it is a pathway,” she explains, “This will be an iterative process, one that continues to bring us closer to carbon neutrality.”

What’s our role in all of this?

A big one. The U.S. is the second largest emitter, making up 16 percent of annual CO2 emissions. China, with its big population and growing economy, is in first place, accounting for a quarter of the world’s emissions.

(If you’re from Texas, you account for the biggest part of the U.S. emissions pie, releasing 12 percent of the nation’s CO2, twice as much as  No. 2-ranked California. Part of that is because Texas has a lot of people. On a per capita basis, Wyoming takes the prize.)

What’s the biggest hurdle?

The poorer countries want rich countries to help pay the cost of building new greener technologies. The richer countries have agreed to help, to the tune of $100 billion. But, there’s controversy over just how to split up the bill.

So, what makes these talks different from the twenty international climate talks that have already taken place?

“As opposed to the glacial — no pun intended — pace of other negotiations,” says Figueres, this time, the document the COP will consider was on the table a year ahead of schedule. It’s also only 47 pages long, which makes it more digestible than earlier documents, which were tome-like at over 300 pages.

This is also the first time the U.S. and China, the world’s two biggest greenhouse gas emitters, are coming to the table ready to talk. Let’s hope the conversation goes well.

Will there be reason to celebrate?

Keep the champagne on ice, but don’t pop the cork. President Obama really wants success in Paris to be part of his legacy, but a lot can go wrong when world leaders get together. If this deal does happen, it’ll be historic, and you’ll want to make sure your kids know about it. It’s their planet after all.

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More Resources:

The official COP21 website offers a great tour of the event with kid-appropriate videos and a quiz that you’ll ace after reading this article: http://www.cop21.gouv.fr/en

The Guardian’s COP21 site features breaking news and breaking gossip about the talks: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/cop-21-un-climate-change-conference-paris

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change COP21 site is where it gets technical: http://unfccc.int/meetings/paris_nov_2015/meeting/8926.php

If you’re into budgeting, here’s a nice infographic on how we can keep climate change at bay. http://www.wri.org/sites/default/files/WRI13-IPCCinfographic-FINAL_web.png

Try watching Christina Figueres’ optimistic and realistic talk about the road to Paris for great background on the meeting. https://vimeo.com/127674636

Juli Berwald, Ph.D. is a science writer based in Austin, Texas. You can read more about the climate and other science at her website: www.spinelessthebook.com

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