UN Climate Summit: Obama and Chinese Vice President seek global pledge on climate change; what’s at stake based on latest Forum dialogue
President Barack Obama called for more ambition and action on the part of all nations to address climate change at the UN Climate Summit in New York City on Tuesday. “We cannot condemn our children, and their children, to a future that is beyond their capacity to repair,” he said. “[The U.S.] will do its part, and help developing nations do theirs,” he told the gathering of over 120 heads of state and government officials, adding that “nobody gets a free pass.” He was followed by Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli, who said China would make “an even greater effort” to reduce emissions.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called the meeting in an effort to build momentum, trust, and political ambition for a meaningful global agreement in Paris next year. The summit was the largest high-level climate meeting since 2009, though the presidents of China and India were noticeably absent. The event was held amidst a whirlwind of activity. Just two days prior, a reported 300,000 people converged on the streets of Manhattan to join the “People’s Climate March” in a call for meaningful emissions reductions worldwide. Throughout the week progressive business leaders, Wall Street titans, state and local leaders, academics and activists swapped ideas at various events hosted by Climate Week NYC.
“There is one issue that will define the contours of this century more dramatically than any other,” Mr. Obama told the summit on Tuesday. “That is the urgent and growing threat of a changing climate.”
After listing a litany of extreme weather events and alluding to a new slate of reports showing this summer and August as the hottest on record worldwide, the oceans acidifying at a level unprecedented in 300 million years, and the largest annual increase in greenhouse gas emissions in 30 years, President Obama said “the climate is changing faster than our efforts to address it.”
“We know what we have to do,” Mr. Obama told the world leaders. “We have to cut carbon pollution in our own countries to prevent the worst effects of climate change. We have to adapt to the impacts that, unfortunately, we can no longer avoid.”
Recognizing that any substantial reduction in worldwide emissions in the coming years would require the commitment of both developed and developing nation alike, Mr. Obama did his best to paint our country’s modest emissions reductions in the best possible light and assure other nations that America was indeed serious about curbing its emissions.
“There should be no question that the United States of America is stepping up to the plate. We recognize our role in creating this problem; we embrace our responsibility to combat it,” he said, as Republicans and a number of Democrats in Congress work to thwart the EPA’s proposed rules on coal power plants and curtail other initiatives in the President’s Climate Action Plan.
Despite the limits of executive power and the EPA’s regulatory authority under the Clean Air Act, President Obama nonetheless promised nations that “we will do our part, and we will help developing nations do theirs.” Whether the President’s assuring rhetoric will be coupled with action remains to be seen.
For those hoping for more substantial action on climate change, the most promising signal came not from President Obama, but from the following speech by Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli, who said “China will make even greater effort to address climate change” and sought to have emissions peak “as early as possible.” Observers noted that it was the first time that China had mentioned a future total cap on emissions as a goal.
Mr Zhang told the summit that by 2020, China would aim to reduce its emissions of carbon per unit of GDP by 45%, compared with levels in 2005, a reaffirmation of its stated goal in Copenhagen five years ago. “All countries need to follow the path of green and low carbon development that suits their national conditions, [and] set forth post-2020 actions in light of actual circumstances.”
In addition to China and America’s strong words, a number of developed nations agreed to pledge money to the Green Climate Fund, which is intended to help developing nations reduce their reliance on fossil fuels or unsustainable development. Notable pledges came from France with $1 billion, Switzerland and South Korea with $100 million each, and Denmark with $70 million. In an even more direct effort, Norway announced that it would give Liberia $150 million to curb deforestation, especially from illegal logging operations. The various pledges and signals, led many to label the UN Climate Summit a success given that the intent of the gathering was to build confidence, awareness, and ambition for a global agreement in Paris next year. Whether the rhetoric and incremental gestures will lead to ambitious pledges comprising a new global agreement that actually bends down the trajectory of greenhouse gas concentrations remains uncertain.
All previous attempts at reaching a global accord with long-term emissions reductions and the buy-in of the United States and China have failed, beginning with Kyoto Protocol in 1990, which sought mandatory emissions but failed to gain any commitment from developing nations. Though signed by the U.S. negotiators, the treaty was never even submitted to the Senate given its zero chance for ratification. The latest attempt in Copenhagen 2009 also failed to garner any plan for long-term emissions reductions. Recognizing that China, India, and the U.S. will refuse to subject themselves to a global carbon police and that any treaty with binding cuts in emissions is likely dead upon arrival in the U.S. Senate, the general strategy of the Paris 2015 is a “bottom up” approach. Nations plan on making their own non-binding commitments to reduce emissions, starting in 2020, and subject themselves only to an international measurement, reporting and verification regime that is still being worked out.
What’s at Stake Based on Recent Forum Dialogue
Whether these “contributions” will be enough to limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) based on preindustrial temperatures – a threshold all major nations agreed should not be crossed at the Copenhagen conference in 2009 – seems doubtful. There has not been much Forum dialogue as to why this threshold of 2 degrees Celsius was established, other than “it represents the point beyond which scientists know there are NOT going to be bad consequences [like] mass extinctions or massive releases of methane hydrates” according to Dr. Nielsen-Gammon. [Update 10/2/2014: See new commentary on why this target was established in ‘CCNF Scientists Talk Dirty: On climate *mitigation* and the threshold of 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (2 C).’] According to the latest discussions and posts on climate sensitivity and the present trajectory of greenhouse gas concentrations, it appears to be an all but impossible task. Even in the event climate sensitivity turns out to be very low – say, 1.5 C per doubling of preindustrial greenhouse gas levels – the threshold will still undoubtedly be crossed absent effective “mitigation” later this century given that current trajectories will lead to a tripling and likely quadrupling of preindustrial greenhouse gas levels before the century ends. See ‘What is Business as Usual?‘ by Dr. Nielsen-Gammon; ‘Cause & Effect‘ by Dr. Scott Denning; the CCNF’s fact checker post on the ‘Risky Business’ report; and the recent CCNF video interview with Dr. Andrew Dessler, which summarizes (starting at 8:18 below) all the climate sensitivity estimates expressed by the participating scientists in the Forum thus far.
As noted by Dr. Bart Vergheggen early on in the Forum, altering the trajectory of these rising emissions to avoid the impacts of their subsequent forcing response has been equated to turning a super tanker at full speed: “If you want to change course, you better start steering the wheel in the right direction in time.”
Confusion on What Can or Should Done
The Forum has yet to explore what policies and strategies could effectively bend down the trajectory of atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations. Among those ardently calling for action in the “People’s Climate March” in New York City and other cities throughout the United States, opinions varied far and wide. Some called for the U.S. and developing nations to voluntarily leave coal in the ground – “a hard ask” for developing countries, as noted by David Hone, an adviser on climate change for Royal Dutch Shell, in the post ‘Climate Change Discussion in Houston‘ by Dr. Barry Lefer. Some called for cap-and-trade, others a carbon price. Some called for divestment in fossil fuel companies. A radical few saw no alternative but to end capitalism itself. A surprisingly large number called for a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing as well as coal, which, given the practical limits of wind and solar in terms of power generation, raises the prospect of a massive expansion in nuclear energy to meet current energy needs.
The range of positions underscores just how daunting the challenge of achieving substantial emissions reductions really is. Americans are divided on whether climate change poses a serious problem, but even more so on what can or should be done about climate change as a nation. This uncertainty highlights the need for a scientifically grounded marketplace place of policy ideas based on shared values and a sober acknowledgement of uncertainty and risk.
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