A meeting to avoid climate catastrophe

President Barack Obama delivers a speech at the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Paris on Monday.
President Barack Obama delivers a speech at the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Paris on Monday. AP

As the world’s leaders convene in Paris to devise a plan to avert the most devastating effects of climate change, here is a sure bet: Whatever deal emerges is not going to save the planet. But wait, there’s also good news: This meeting is more promising than any that have gone before.

To understand this paradox, it is necessary to understand what the problem is, and why previous conferences — in Kyoto in 1997 and Copenhagen in 2009 — were so disappointing.

The challenge posed by global warming was summed up expertly and succinctly in a remarkable encyclical issued earlier this year by Pope Francis;

“Most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxides and others) released mainly as a result of human activity. Concentrated in the atmosphere, these gases do not allow the warmth of the sun’s rays reflected by the Earth to be dispersed in space. The problem is aggravated by a model of development based on the intensive use of fossil fuels, which is at the heart of the worldwide energy system.”

Scientists agree that avoiding catastrophic effects means restricting global average temperature increases to no more than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Under the most optimistic scenarios, the plan that emerges in Paris would still allow warming by 6 degrees or more, according to a variety of independent analyses.

That’s why this conference won’t come up with the ultimate solution for climate change. But what Paris aims for is not so much a final endpoint, but rather a turning point — a conference that can finally begin to make real, substantial progress. There is reason to believe this is possible.

In a sense, much of the hard work is already done. More than 170 countries have submitted a national plan to reduce emissions in the years ahead. The breakthrough came last year, when the United States and China set measurable goals for cutting emissions and how they plan to go about it. The U.S. goal is cutting emissions from 2005 levels by 28 percent by 2025. President Obama has issued tough environmental rules to make that happen.

This is vastly different from previous conferences, which sought a top-down approach that produced an iron-clad plan that all would adhere to.

That resulted in failure in Kyoto and Copenhagen, so they’re trying a different and more promising approach. Another reason to be hopeful is that negotiators want to schedule future meetings — every five or 10 years, say — to improve on emissions targets and deadlines.

We are not so naive as to believe that success is guaranteed in Paris. Some countries could cheat on their targets. Some will come up with worthless plans. Money is already a problem: In Kyoto, the developed world pledged $100 billion to help developing nations pay for cleaner energy and the effects of climate change. To date, only $62 billion has been forthcoming.

That’s why the Paris conference must create a framework for monitoring, to ensure that countries meet their declared emissions and donations goals, and to set more ambitious goals for future gatherings.

The Paris conference can make a difference. The world’s 7.3 billion inhabitants have a right to expect their leaders to make a start toward fixing what’s wrong, to build a platform that others can build on to prevent the worst effects of climate change. The price of failure, to quote Pope Francis in Africa last week, would be catastrophic.