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8 Questions about the climate talks in Copenhagen

By David A. Fahrenthold and Juliet Eilperin

1.) What the heck is all this?

This is a United Nations-run conference that was -- originally -- supposed to produce a new global agreement to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions because what happens after 2012 under the Kyoto Protocol is uncertain. There is a legal agreement in place but it has no specifics in it, and countries would have to agree to a new round of targets.

But the idea of a new global agreement was scotched before the conference even started. Now, countries say they're trying to produce a "political agreement." In U.N.-speak, that means a deal that settles some key issues, like climate targets for major greenhouse gas emitters and the amount of money that rich nations will pay to poor ones to adapt to climate change, and establishes a framework for inking a formal treaty next year.

Key issues remain unsettled, so the talks' final outcome are uncertain.

2.) What progress has been made so far?

Some, but there's a real question of whether it's enough. The most encouraging news has come on the subject of the funds that rich countries will pay to poor ones, both to help them adapt to climate change and to reduce the greenhouse gases they emit. On Thursday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said that the United States would help mobilize $100 billion in annual financing by 2020 (although Clinton did not say, specifically, how much the U.S. would contribute). And, on Wednesday, there was a key signal from the other side, as Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said poorer countries would accept a smaller amount of short-term funding in exchange for a bigger long-term package. Zenawi said his side had agreed to take $10 billion a year in the next three years, if that amount rose to $100 billion by 2020.

Also, before the conference began, both the United States and China made pledges to tackle their greenhouse-gas emissions. In the U.S. case, President Obama offered to reduce them "in the range of" 17 percent, as measured against 2005 levels, by 2020. China pledged they would reduce their carbon output relative to the size of their economy by between 40 and 45 percent compared to what it otherwise would have been over the same period. Many experts said this is less ambitious than it seems, since China's economy is bound to get more energy efficient in the coming decade as it develops and relies on cleaner technologies. Some say that China's existing policies will lead to carbon output reductions in the 40 to 45 percent range and that they need to be more ambitious than that. Many countries have criticized the U.S. target as well, saying that it represents just a 3 percent cut below 1990 levels, the benchmark used under Kyoto.

3.) Where do the delegates still disagree?

On a few key points. Countries have made little progress on how an agreement would capture the climate targets they've put on the table. They also disagree over how -- or whether -- third-party countries can check to see if countries are meeting their promises to reduce emissions.

Also, it was only Thursday that countries formally agreed on just what they were negotiating over here. Poorer countries want the next deal to be considered a formal sequel to the Kyoto accords, since they held industrialized countries to strong emissions cuts. A group of developed countries wanted to start with a clean slate, but on Thursday they gave up that bid.

4.) What role is the United States playing?

No longer the villain, but not quite the hero either. The Obama administration has been praised in Copenhagen for pledging to make emissions cuts, which was a break from the Bush administration's approach. And, over the last couple of days, U.S. officials have proposed funding for poor countries, a breakthrough credited with keeping hope of a deal alive. But U.S. negotiators were critizicized by some developing countries for taking so long to act, and for demanding that major developing countries subject their emission cuts to international scrutiny. And the U.S. delegation is likely to be cautious in any emissions-reductions it promises -- mindful that climate legislation is stalled in the U.S. Senate, and that an angry Senate refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol under President Bill Clinton.

President Obama will arrive in Copenhagen Friday. What he says, and whether he's able to bring bickering blocs of countries together, will likely be the best-remembered story of the U.S. involvement there.

5.) What's the deal with "two degrees"?

It's a statement about the world's thermostat. This summer, world leaders gathered in Italy pledged to prevent the earth's average temperature from warming more than two degrees Celsius, which is about 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, from pre-industrial levels. This conference was supposed to work out the stickier question of how to accomplish that goal. Many vulnerable countries have actually called for the world to aim for curtailing global temperature rise even more, by establishing an upper threshhold of 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit.

For now, the world seems to be on pace to miss the goal. A consortium of U.S.-based scientists recently found that, even if all the world's countries fulfill the emissions-cutting pledges they've made so far, temperatures will rise about 3.6 degrees Celsius (6.8 degrees Fahrenheit).

6.) Wait, didn't "Climate-gate" show that climate change isn't happening after all?

No. The "Climate-gate" scandal involved a trove of electronic files stolen from a climate-change research center at a British university. The emails showed climate scientists fretting over problems in their data, and scheming to keep researchers who disagreed with them out of scientific journals. They certainly raised questions about whether the leading experts on the subject tried to make their field appear less messy, and the science of climate change more unanimous, that it really was.

But there was nothing in them that showed that the basic conclusions of climate science -- that earth's temperatures are warming, and that man-made pollutants appear to be trapping unusual amounts of heat in the atmosphere -- are wrong.

7.) What's the deal with those demonstrators?

Many of them feel like the Copenhagen conference doesn't take the problem of climate change seriously enough. For days, demonstrators outside the Bella Center in Copenhagen -- the site of the talks -- have battled with Danish police wielding tear gas and truncheons. Others have held non-violent demonstrations in the city (and in Washington, where Thursday morning Greenpeace used fake police tape to cordon off the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, labeling it a "Climate Crime Scene" because they believe the chamber is trying to slow progress toward emissions cuts). The goal of most of them is to push the delegates toward more stringent, ambitious cuts in emissions. But there are also skeptical groups, who believe that climate change is not happening in the way that mainstream science believes, or that tackling it would impose vast costs on the world's economy.

8.) How is this all going to end?

At the last possible moment. International negotiators work like procrastinating college students: though they've had two weeks to work out their differences in Copenhagen, it's likely they will follow custom and pull off a deal on the conference's last day. The arrival of heads of state, including Obama, may speed that along, since they have authority to make deals that lower-level negotiators do not. For now, however, it seems like the hardest issues of dealing with climate change -- how deeply to cut emissions, how to make sure other countries are keeping their promises -- will be left unresolved, to be handled at another conference (with many of the same players) next year.


Juliet Eilperin

 |  December 17, 2009; 2:05 PM ET Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Please report offensive comments below.

Oversimplification of complex climate interactions is once again evident in the 'THERMOSTAT' characterization.

There is no one thermometer that has been in use for hundreds of years; but composite models using many point sources and satellite data.

In fact; the first KYOTO meeting ignored the Southern Hemisphere; and if Russian climate scientists are correct---and I believe they are, Russian data was cherry-picked; and jet contrails were ignored-'not enough data'= 'we didn't consult space agencies'.

Instead they used data from several N. European Universities and American air pollution emissions data...both were from biased sources.

It can hardly be considered 'settled science' when there is no one agreed upon method for collecting temp. data and major collection points, like Mt. Washington are ignored because they don't 'fit' into the preconception about G.W.

Posted by: Common_Cents1 | December 18, 2009 10:51 AM
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