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UN climate change summit could bring first progress in years

A scene of blue skies over the Temple of Heaven is seen on an electronic billboard through pollution in Beijing on November 27, 2015. China is the world's largest polluter and will be a key player at next week's climate change talks in Paris in the face of disputes over whether developed or developing countries should bear more of the burden for reducing emissions.
A scene of blue skies over the Temple of Heaven is seen on an electronic billboard through pollution in Beijing on November 27, 2015. China is the world's largest polluter and will be a key player at next week's climate change talks in Paris in the face of disputes over whether developed or developing countries should bear more of the burden for reducing emissions. AFP/Getty Images

Government leaders from 194 nations, braving threats of further terrorist attacks, gather Monday in Paris for the 21st United Nations climate change summit. Their goal is to forge a framework that they hope will spare the planet from the kind of catastrophic warming by 2100 that many climate scientists see as inevitable.

Twenty U.N. summits have preceded Paris. While there have been intermittent successes in many of the meetings, environmentalists argue that elected leaders have failed for two decades to achieve the most fundamental outcome: a binding agreement to burn less fossil fuels in order to keep the Earth from heating up so fast.

This year has already been declared the hottest on record, as were the previous 14 years. The results are with us now: Rapidly melting Arctic ice caps leading to sea-level rise. Warming oceans leading to dying coral reefs and more frequent storms of greater intensity. Persistent droughts leading to water scarcity not just in poor sub-Saharan Africa but also in wealthy California.

Wake Forest University law professor John Knox is the United Nations’ special representative on climate change and human rights. In his role, he travels the world, primarily to poor countries in tropical regions to evaluate the ravages of climate change being experienced.

Knox visited the tiny island country of Maldives in the Indian Ocean. It is being swallowed by sea-level rise triggered by global warming for which it bears no responsibility. The situation there threatens to upend the lives of 345,000 people.

That’s the intersection between climate change and human rights that concerns the United Nations. Knox’s written reports recommend what can be done, such as asking industrial countries that are the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions to compensate the Maldives so it can build protective sea walls.

It’s a tough sell.

“If you’re really concerned about climate change,” Knox said, “you don’t take two decades to get to a decision. But we’ve got this issue: We don’t have one world government; having the world divided up into nearly 200 countries makes the problem infinitely harder to deal with.”

Remarkably, Knox surveys a grim landscape and insists he is optimistic about the outcome of the Paris negotiations, which run through Dec. 11. Why?

“For the first time ever, the world’s three largest leaders in carbon emissions are on board: China, the United States and the European Union (which is counted as one entity),” Knox said. “Those three alone account for 50 percent of all carbon emissions. With that kind of leadership, other nations will fall in line.”

Then there is this: Since the high-profile failure of the 2009 negotiations in Copenhagen, where poor countries felt bullied by powerful nations and bailed out of any accord, an entire strategy was ditched. No longer would the U.N. try to dictate to nearly 200 countries what each should be doing.

The name of the game now? Do what you can.

“Copenhagen was the gravestone for the top-down approach,” Knox says. “Instead, more than 150 nations pledged earlier this year to reduce their own carbon emissions to levels they believe they can achieve. Those (pledges) make it extremely likely that the voluntary commitments will be drafted into an accord that nations can agree on. That’s never happened before.”

Difficult math of climate change

The Obama administration does not plan to seek approval for any Paris accord. The president has said he believes he has the authority to impose carbon emission limits through existing legislation and the EPA.

And Knox isn’t worried that other countries will renege on their promises. Global urgency about climate change is on the rise, he says.

No wonder. Since 1900 and the full emergence of the industrial age, the burning of gas, oil and coal for energy has enabled enormous prosperity in the First World. It has also caused the planet to warm by about 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit). The geologic record over millions of years shows the Earth has never warmed so fast in such a short time.

Think of the atmosphere as a blanket. Before the 1900s, the blanket’s thickness was ideal. It allowed in enough of the sun’s heat to warm the Earth, while enabling enough of that heat to reflect off the surface and escape. That lightweight blanket kept temperatures steady and nonthreatening to human activity.

“Without a greenhouse effect,” Knox said, “we would have the atmosphere of the moon.”

But tons and tons of greenhouse gas emissions over the decades have increased the thickness of that atmospheric blanket. The Earth has warmed. And Mother Nature, who has been tossed off balance, has responded with a vengeance.

Climate scientists say weather today is more unpredictable, more erratic. The unprecedented power of hurricanes Katrina and Sandy are possible U.S. examples. In the Philippines, three of the most ferocious typhoons ever have leveled the island state in the last three years. Alaska is losing its permafrost.

Bangladesh, essentially a country spread across a marsh, may see 150 million people dislocated by sea-level rise. Lima, Peru, is a desert city of 9 million people where it never rains. It depends on Andean glacier melt for its water. Those glaciers have shrunk by a third.

Climate scientists believe that carbon emissions must be reduced drastically to keep the world from warming another 1 degree Celsius in the next 50-75 years. If we keep burning fossil fuels at the current rate, temperatures are expected to rise an additional 3 to 5 degrees Celsius. Life on Earth could become unsustainable by the 22nd century, scientists warn.

And here’s where Knox’s optimism takes a hit: the emissions gap. When calculated, the voluntary global pledges are only half as much as needed to prevent an increase of 1 degree Celsius by 2100.

“Cutting out the use of fossil fuels,” Knox said. “There is no other way to fix this problem.”

What about forests?

Others disagree.

Representatives from the nation’s leading environmental groups held a news conference Nov. 20 and issued an urgent plea. It’s not just about reducing emissions, they say. It’s seeing the forests for the trees.

Trees and organic matter thrive on carbon dioxide. It’s their oxygen, especially in the dense tropical forests around the belly of the Earth. In Brazil and the Congo, Indonesia and Peru, tropical forests soak in CO2 and store it in leaves, limbs, trunks and roots. As long as the tree is alive and standing, it holds that carbon as if locked in a vault.

But when trees fall through deforestation, when they are burned or left to rot, the vault opens, and the carbon escapes. Deforestation globally contributes as much to carbon emissions as the entire transportation sector.

“The activities of the land sector collectively account for about 24 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions,” said Jason Funk, a climate scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, D.C. “But forests provide sequestration potential equal to about 10 to 14 percent of current gross emissions.”

Funk and his colleagues at the Environmental Defense Fund, the World Wildlife Fund, the Nature Conservancy and Conservation International believe Paris negotiators are overlooking a crucial aspect for offsetting the effects of climate change: yes, reduce emissions, but also agree to an aggressive strategy to also reduce deforestation and regrow forests where they have been slashed and burned for ranching, farming and extraction.

“Forests and other ecosystems are the only positive way we have of removing carbon from the atmosphere at scale,” said Steve Panfil, a policy adviser with Conservation International in Washington, D.C. “Any agreement in Paris has to take that into account. If we stop deforestation today, the remaining forests could reduce emissions (by pulling gases from the atmosphere) by 30 percent.”

But there are other practical reasons to stop destroying nature, Panfil adds. Mangroves blunt the fury of land-bound storms. Rain and cloud forests play a crucial role in the water cycle, which affects weather patterns around the world. Millions of people depend on forests for food security.

“The emissions gap is real, and it’s fair to say the land sector has not been given the importance it deserves in closing the gap,” Funk said.

Skepticism and optimism

Meanwhile, somewhere in the Eastern Hemisphere – he wouldn’t say where, but not Indonesia, which his Skype handle says – Chris Lang runs a website that lays waste to the arguments of environmentalists and their love of standing forests.

It’s just unrealistic, he says.

Lang also is highly critical of U.N. policies that allow industrialized countries to continue to burn fossil fuels at will as long as they pay a tropical country enough money to preserve a stretch of rain forest capable of absorbing all that pollution. It is, at best, a zero-sum gain, Lang says, before becoming cynical, or realistic – depending on your perspective. (For his outspokenness and online prominence, Lang says he fears for his life, hence his secretiveness.)

“The idea that forests are worth more standing than they are being cut down to grow palm oil (Indonesia), drill for oil (Ecuador) or dig for gold (Peru) is not working,” Lang said during a Skype interview. “You can always make more money cutting down the trees. And with a carbon trading system, you are not burning any less fossil fuels.”

The answer, Lang says, is not even a topic of discussion in Paris. It is not just about reducing carbon emissions, he argues. It should be about keeping coal, oil and gas in the ground, period. Then invest heavily in renewable forms of energy, such as wind, solar, hydroelectric, even nuclear.

“They talk about reducing emissions, but they never talk about stopping the extraction of oil and coal,” Lang said. “That’s a complicated political discussion. Is Saudi Arabia going to stop drilling for oil? Is West Virginia going to stop digging coal? No. Not without really difficult discussions about what’s really needed.”

Knox, who studied and taught climate policy for 20 years at American University before moving to Wake Forest, takes this all in. He’s heard all the arguments, all the skepticism, all the doomsday talk. Still, he remains optimistic about Paris and what comes next.

“This wailing and gnashing of teeth follows a familiar pattern,” Knox said. “In the 1970s, when Congress adopted major pollution regulations for the first time, Detroit (automakers) cried that they would be forced out of business. They said meeting the new pollution standards was impossible.

“But then the laws passed, the regulations were adopted, and it turned out, it was possible. And possible to do it far more cheaply than they imagined, which turned out to be better for the economy. Look, if we get halfway there in Paris (with emissions reduction targets), that’s a pretty good start. That’s something to build on later.”

Paris is not the end of the global battle to fight climate change, Knox said. It’s an important pivot point with all nations finally on board. More progress will come. More solutions, too. He’s seen it before. Time and again.

Justin Catanoso is director of journalism at Wake Forest University. His reporting is sponsored by the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting in Washington and the Center for Energy Environment and Sustainability at Wake Forest. He will cover the Paris summit; his reporting can be followed at www.justincatanoso.com.

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