By Isobel Whitcomb ‘17
Beginning on Nov. 30, delegates from 195 countries will meet in Paris for a two-week long climate conference. The goal of the conference, to limit global warming to a total of two degrees Celsius above pre industrial-revolution levels, is nothing new. Two degrees Celsius has long been the maximum rise in temperature considered safe by climate scientists, environmentalists, and other leaders concerned about global warming. However, previous attempts to stick to this goal have been lackluster at best. At the last major conference, which took place in 2009 in Copenhagen, Denmark, country representatives failed altogether to come to any kind of agreement. So what will be the difference between the upcoming conference and the 20 other climate talks which have taken place since 1992? According to French politicians organizing the talks, this year’s conference is unprecedented because they expect it to result in the first ever universal binding contract on climate change.
The sense of urgency surrounding the Paris climate talks, reflected in France’s insistence on writing a binding contract, reflects changing attitudes around the world to the threat of global warming. A recent international poll found that the number of people worldwide who believe that climate change is a “very serious” problem has risen substantially. When a similar poll was conducted in 2010, 37% of U.S. respondents agreed that climate change is a very serious problem. In the latest poll, this number had risen to 45%. Meanwhile, in Sub Saharan Africa, India, and Latin America, the number of people concerned about global warming is at an unprecedented high. For example, over 70% of respondents in Brazil, Burkina Faso, Ghana, the Philippines and Uganda rated themselves as “very concerned” when asked if they felt that climate change would personally harm them during their lifetimes. According to climate scientists, the prevalence of natural disaster in recent years is precipitating these changes in attitude. From the California drought, to wildfires raging across both North and South America, to devastating floods and hurricanes, global warming feels more real than ever before. “It is no longer a distant, far-off problem,” said Dr. Mann, a professor of climate science at the University of Pennsylvania. “It is very real, and as a result, a growing majority of the population is demanding action.”
It appears that with the Paris climate talks in the near future, action is finally being taken. In contrast with the mentality of the past two decades, which has been one of caution and hesitance to make any sudden changes, leaders in Europe have declared their hopes that the product of this conference will not only be binding but “ambitious” as well. This acknowledgement that solving global warming can only be possible with widespread change, as opposed to small personal changes such as “driving less,” is close to unprecedented.
However, all the talk of legally binding and ambitious changes appears to be coming from European leaders, particularly those running the conference in France. How realistic are these ideals on a global scale? Unfortunately, the idea of a binding contract is not taking hold in many other parts of the world. The U.S., China, and India have all formally declared their unwillingness to participate in such a contract. While these countries all plan on participating in the conference, the nature of the contract is becoming a major point of contention. In addition, no one is actually sure how to go about enforcing such a contract on an international scale. What would be the consequences of breaching a contract? And who would do all the enforcing? Countries in favor of a binding contract hope that such questions will be decided at the conference.
If the Paris climate conference of 2015 could have one slogan as of now, it would be “don’t get your hopes up too high.” Most politicians and climate scientists agree that not only is the concept of a universally binding agreement unrealistic, but we will almost certainly be unable to stop global warming before it reaches the threshold of two degrees Celsius. As of this year, we have already passed the one degree threshold. However, the general consensus is that with attitudes towards global warming changing worldwide, and with the new willingness of a few major world powers to make radical changes, we are moving in the right direction.