COP20 marks the 20th anniversary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – an agreement that emerged from the Rio Earth Summit. It has been 25 years since the international community called for action on greenhouse gases, 26 since James Hansen testified to U.S. congressional committees about global warming. When the UNFCCC was drafted in 1992, negotiators borrowed language from the Montreal Protocol (an agreement to address the destruction of the ozone layer): that member states would “act in the interests of human safety even in the face of scientific uncertainty”. In the time since that draft, the scientific uncertainty about climate change and its causes has been greatly reduced as evidenced in the thousands of peer-reviewed papers published each year and the high confidence level (over 95%) expressed by experts in the most recent report (AR5) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that climate change is indeed human-caused.
This will be the 6th COP that Moravian College has sent a delegation to after being accredited as an official observer in 2009. We use this blog to report on the issues that we learn about at these international gatherings in an effort to increase awareness of this complex 21st century challenge and to hopefully generate discourse about how to address climate change.
There are a number of factors that make this COP particularly important, including some of the memorable events over the past year in terms of climate change history.
- COP21 in Paris in 2015 has been identified as the target year for adopting an ambitious, multilateral, legally-binding treaty that will significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and make major progress on a myriad of issues related to building resilient communities, managing risks of extreme weather events and disasters, and assisting developing countries in adapting to the impacts of climate change already being experienced. That means that the main negotiations on targets and language will have to be developed at this conference. In order to “galvanize and catalyze climate action” in advance of COP20 and 21, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon invited world leaders to a Climate Summit in September of this year; over 100 world leaders gathered at the United Nations for this event. Perhaps even more importantly, two days before the summit, the largest climate march in history took place with 2646 events in 162 countries. More than 300,000 people marched in the streets of New York City alone.
- Preceding this summit, over the past year, the United Nations hosted 13 Open Working Group sessions as part of the effort to develop the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Global climate change was at the forefront of these discussions, and combating climate change emerged this summer as one of the 17 proposed SDGs. Debate was not over whether climate change should or shouldn’t be a goal, but whether it should be a stand-alone goal or a component of all SDGs.
- According to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the globally averaged temperatures over land and ocean surfaces for both June and September 2014 were the highest since record keeping began in 1880. September marked the 355th consecutive month (29.6 years) with a global temperature above the 20th century average. The last below-average global temperature for June was in 1976 and the last below-average global temperature for any month was in February 1985. In the U.S., the October national average temperature was 3.0°F above average and 2014 is on track to be the warmest year on record globally. Welcome to the new normal.
- Slower to the warming party due to the physical and chemical properties of water, our oceans are now demonstrating the anticipated changes. The September 2014 global sea surface temperature was the highest on record for any month. Did these warming waters have any impact on Typhoon Nuri – the recent storm that hit Alaska? We can’t know for sure. Not only was this the strongest storm to hit this region, meteorologists believe that it may have been one of the deepest extra-tropical low pressure systems on record in the North Pacific.
- This spring, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels surpassed the 400 ppm mark. Unlike the stock market, rising values is not what the public should be hoping for. According to an October 2009 paper in the highly respected journal Science, you have to go back 15 million years to find atmospheric conditions like that in our atmosphere – long before Homo sapiens were around. According to UCLA professor Aradhna Tripati, the lead author on that paper, "The last time carbon dioxide levels were apparently as high as they are today — and were sustained at those levels — global temperatures were 5 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit higher than they are today, the sea level was approximately 75 to 120 feet higher than today, there was no permanent sea ice cap in the Arctic and very little ice on Antarctica and Greenland." The atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide today represent a 44% increase since the historical pre-industrial levels of 278 ppm which were relatively constant for about 800,000 years.
- The November election results in the U.S. will bring to Washington a Republican-controlled House and Senate. Party leaders have already vowed to revoke regulations aimed at tackling carbon pollution in this country and are trying to push through approval of the controversial Keystone pipeline project in this lame-duck session. Given these developments and the fact that the U.S. has long been viewed as a major obstacle in the international climate negotiations, I was assuming that COP20 would be another fruitless endeavor. And then, out of the blue this week, came the announcement of a historic climate-related agreement between the U.S. and China. These are the two nations with the largest carbon footprints and the two most recalcitrant parties at the COP meetings. The proposed targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions of these two countries are not sufficient to “fix” the problem of global climate change, but the agreement is a crucial first step for both countries. No doubt this will lead to a showdown in Washington, but the agreement could really provide the spark needed to ignite progress at the international negotiation table.