Confused About All the Climate Talk and the Copenhagen Summit? Here's the Skinny: Five Things You Should Know

There's a lot of buzz about COP15, the big climate-change meeting coming up -- what exactly is all the hype about, and why should you care? Here's a simple breakdown.

1. What the heck is it?

COP15 is the 15th meeting of the Conference of the Parties, the highest body of the United Nations Climate Change Convention, and it will take place this year Dec. 7-18. There will be 192 countries participating and a whole bunch of nongovernmental organizations, as well. The event will be in Copenhagen and is hosted by the Danish government. COP14 was in Poland last year.

One of the most well-known COP meetings was COP3 in Kyoto, Japan, in 1997, which resulted in the Kyoto Protocol, a document now signed by over 180 countries and put into action in February 2005. The protocol set binding emissions targets for greenhouse gases (GHG) for 37 industrialized countries and the European Union, committing them to reducing their GHG emissions an average of 5 percent against 1990 levels between 2008 and 2012.

"Recognizing that developed countries are principally responsible for the current high levels of GHG emissions in the atmosphere as a result of more than 150 years of industrial activity, the protocol places a heavier burden on developed nations under the principle of 'common but differentiated responsibilities,'" explains the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

The U.S., which contributed over 30 percent of global GHG emissions in 1990 never signed the Kyoto Protocol, and the country's reluctance to commit to international climate change negotiations has long stymied the process. Until, perhaps, now ...

2. What are they trying to accomplish?

The goal of the COP15 is to get as many countries as possible (and particularly big emitters like the U.S.) to enter into a binding agreement to reduce GHG emissions enough to prevent catastrophic results from climate change.

Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, told Environment & Energy Publishing that he was hoping four important questions would be answered in Copenhagen:

  • How much are the industrialized countries willing to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases?
  • How much major developing countries such as China and India are willing to do to limit the growth of their emissions?
  • How is the help needed by developing countries to engage in reducing their emissions and adapting to the impacts of climate change going to be financed?
  • How is that money going to be managed?

3. Why does the future of the world depend on it?

This is really serious stuff. The best science tells us that we need immediate action on climate change to prevent catastrophic results. This month the U.N. Environment Program released an updated report following the groundbreaking findings in 2007 by the International Panel on Climate Change that basically said thing are are going to be as bad as the IPCC predicted or worse.

"The pace and the scale of climate change is accelerating, along with the confidence among researchers in their forecasts," UNEP Director Achim Steiner said in the report.

What UNEP found was that we've already committed ourselves to an increase in temperature above pre-industrial levels by 1.4 degrees Celsius by 2100, and if we don't get our acts together soon -- meaning making 25-40 percent reductions in CO2 emissions from 1990 levels by 2020 -- we're looking at 4.3 degrees Celsius increases or worse.

A few degrees may sound like not a big deal, but actually it's quite bad. Here are some details from Matt McDermott at Treehugger to put it in perspective:

That effectively signs the extinction warrant for about half of all animal and plant life on the planet; it means coral reefs are gone due to ocean acidification; it means ice-free summers in the Arctic, sets both Greenland and Antarctica on the melting path to multimeter sea-level rise; and it means the glaciers in the Himalayas are doomed.

In human terms, that means half of all humans will face water shortages; it means widespread starvation in South and East Asia, as water availability plummets and crop yields drop; it means much the same thing in Africa; the Mekong [River] Delta is 20 percent flooded and Ho Chi Minh City is 10-20 percent underwater; the Nile Delta (source of much of Egypt's food) is inundated with saltwater; same thing for most of Bangladesh.

In the United States, it means localized temperature increases (think the Great Plains) of up to 7 degrees Celcius; it means severe water problems in the Sierra Nevada mountains, which supply meltwater to California agriculture; crop yields plummet in the Midwest; insect-borne diseases like dengue fever, historically confined to the tropics, spread to 28 states; coastal cities like Miami, New York, New Orleans and others have to contend with a sea-level rise of more than a meter.

If you want some numbers: By 2030, 500,000 people could die due to climate change -- 99 percent of them in the developing world, which it should be pointed out have historically done very little to cause the problem. Already an estimated 300,000 people are seriously affected by climate change.

In economic terms, by 2030 the global economy could take a $340 billion hit.

Really, we can't put enough pressure on the governments and international organizations meeting in Copenhagen to put politics aside and come up with a truly comprehensive and fair treaty to reduce GHG emissions.

4. Will the U.S. screw it up for everyone again?

Of course that's always a possibility, but there's ample reason to be hopeful that things will turn out differently this year. For one, we've got a president who actually understands the science and appreciates the seriousness of the issue. We've also got Congress lumbering away on a climate bill, although just how effective that bill may end up being is still in question.

It's looking more and more likely that the U.S. won't have passed a comprehensive climate bill before Copenhagen, which is bad news, but does not necessarily spell disaster for the negotiations.

David Fogarty from Reuters explains:

In reality, the U.S. Senate might pass the climate bill in the first part of 2010, allowing President Barack Obama's administration to bring a 2020 target and financing pledges to the table during a major U.N. climate meeting in Bonn [Germany] in June.

At worst, nations would have to wait until annual U.N. climate talks in December 2010.

Of course, if the Senate doesn't get its act together and no bill comes to pass, then there is a glimmer of hope, but it's quite weak. Fogarty writes:

The U.S. Senate votes against the climate bill, but other nations reluctantly go ahead with many measures to fight climate change anyway, hoping the United States will formally join the global effort at some point.

In the worst-case scenario, negotiations start to resemble failed trade talks that repeatedly stall. Nations instead work on bilateral clean-energy and carbon-offset deals that fail to achieve major reductions in the growth of emissions.

The trouble is we are dealing with a very limited time line, so making sure the U.S government is on board and our country is pulling its fair share of the weight is essential. And the sooner, the better.

5. What can I do?

While world leaders will get to make some big decisions behind the negotiating table, that doesn't mean the rest of us should sit idly by. There are a bunch of ways to get involved:

  • Call your senator and ask him or her to pass a strong, comprehensive climate bill. With the U.S. committed to cutting GHG emissions, global talks will be off to a much better start.
  • You can join forces with people from all over the world on Oct. 24 for the global day of climate action sponsored by Bill McKibben and You can find an action near you or start your own. And it doesn't end this weekend. Sign up with, and you'll get reminders about future actions, science updates and news about how things are going on the climate-change front.
  • Join Tck Tck Tck, the largest mobilization demanding action on a climate-change agreement in Copenhagen. The group is bringing together individuals, big NGOs, and local and national groups ranging from the Global Campaign Against Poverty to the Union of Concerned Scientists. Team up with Tck Tck Tck and help to spread the word about what needs to be done at COP15.
  • Get engaged. Stay on top of the issue, and help spread the word. Forward stories like this one to your networks. Check Twitter for updates on COP15 and pass along tweets. Become a fan of the COP15 Facebook page and invite your friends.

The best thing to do is get active -- whether it's with a local group working on climate change or an international effort. We need to keep the pressure on world leaders -- here at home and abroad.

McKibben said recently: "Temperatures will continue to go up, and a lot of damage will be done. What we are working for is to prevent change so large that civilization itself will be challenged, and that's still possible (we hope). But only if we get to work right away."


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