A Simple Guide To The Paris Climate Talks

The UN climate talks in Paris: Why they matter and why you should care.

A Simple Guide To The Paris Climate Talks
[Top Photo: Silver30 via Shutterstock]

The world is standing on a cliff; at the precipice of deciding if we are going to fly, or if we are going to fall. We are very close to reaching the point where nothing we can do will halt the carbon emissions that are going to cause global temperatures to increase more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, the level of increase at which it starts becoming hard for humans to exist on Earth. In the coming weeks, delegations from all the worlds governments, as well as lobbyists from industry and environmental groups, are meeting in Paris to consider coming together on a plan to stop us from jumping off that cliff. We’ve been here before, numerous times—in Copenhagen, in Kyoto—and never have all the world’s governments come to an agreement about how to stop climate change while continuing to let developing countries develop and developed countries keep growing. As the realities of climate chaos are setting in, this could be our last chance to reverse the momentum of pollution and emissions. Things are already bad: significant climate impacts are already occurring at the current level of global warming (and we are two-thirds of the way to increasing just 1°C) and higher levels of warming will only increase the risk of severe, pervasive, and irreversible impacts through ocean acidification, extreme storms, drought, and flooding. 


So you’ll be hearing more and more references to these climate talks (known officially as the Conference of the Parties 21, or COP21) in the next month. If you’re wondering what all of the hullabaloo is about, we’ll be breaking down the key issues and explaining why the governments of the world along with thousands of people from around the globe, are gathering. Who they are, what they want, how the outcome of these meetings will affect you, your livelihood—and especially—the lives of your children.

Why does the world need to make a plan together?

Our climate system is made up of sky, land, trees and, oceans and does not abide by human-created borders. So while a country might regulate its industry internally, that doesn’t mean its pollution and the ecological systems its changes doesn’t impact its neighbors. For anything to work, everyone needs to be on board.

In truth, we’ve been gathering as a planet to protect ourselves from ourselves for quite some time. Remember when everyone freaked out about aerosols and how using hair spray was creating a giant hole in the ozone? The Montreal Protocol, which took place in 1989, addressed the use of CFCs, the chemical in aerosol cans and air conditioners that was causing the problem. This global treaty is considered one of the most successful and it is worth understanding why. First, we had the technology to solve the problem, we just needed to replace the CFCs with something else. Second, mitigation happened. Mitigation is a hot topic and is one of the key issues in the Paris talks. It boils down to an interesting dynamic where some countries polluted a lot while they developed (like us). Countries who have not been developing (and polluting) at those same rates want to continue to develop. Since our basic model is still that development and pollution go hand-in-hand, these countries need some incentive not to develop, or help developing more sustainably. The Montreal Protocol provided India and China with the financial assistance needed to phase out the CFC’s via a multilateral fund. We all won.

So in Paris we will try to create a universal binding agreement, with the aim of keeping global temperature increases below 1.5°C, which will ensure that this planet will continue to be a habitable place where we can all lead safe and dignified lives. More than 50,000 participants are attending. Along with the heads of state, ministers, negotiators, lobbyists, and interest groups, there will be a lot of passionate young people invested in seeing that we just do it: make a plan that regulates industry, reduces and monitors pollution, instigates the development of renewable energy, and figures out a way to share the responsibility of all of these changes in a fair and equitable way, all in the name of making sure we don’t increase the global temperature by 1.5 degrees.


So what’s the big deal about the Paris talks?

The opportunity of the moment is astonishing. The climate chaos we are experiencing is creating an opportunity to address global systems that tackle energy, poverty, global inequality, world hunger, and ecological systems. But the myriad sticking points are also daunting: The negotiators there are going to try to figure out who is responsible for creating the mess, who is going to clean up the mess, and how are we going to make sure we don’t create such a big mess that none of us will be alive to deal with it in the future. And as with many things, it boils down to two things: which countries cut their pollution, and who pays for the process of changing the technologies to reduce emissions.

The participants have to address the reality that some countries have been developing for years, and other countries are just getting started. Then there is the issue of who is responsible for our current pollution rates, how they are going to be held accountable, and how to create a binding plan to change our current state of pollution rates so that we can continue to exist. That last line was just translated from 10 pages of documents that include impressively academic terms such as climate debt, fair and equitable trade, loss and damages, mitigation, adaptation, global carbon budgets and more acronyms than you shake a stick at. In other words— if you aren’t an eco/climate geek—this can be downright hard to follow, and frankly, downright boring. But just go back and read some news stories about the latest hurricanes, flooding and drought, and then remember what’s at stake.

How did we get here?

Remember back in 1988, when NASA scientist James Hansen testified to the U.S. Senate that man-made global warming had begun? That very same year, a group of scientists that represent 195 countries came together to create the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). These scientists inform the planet’s leaders about how to manage the risk of extreme weather events and disasters.


Remember the term, global warming? This term arrived on the scene when the IPCC was created and declared that humans are causing the concentration of greenhouse gases. In 1992, the world’s leaders met at the first global gathering on climate change, called the Rio Earth Summit. The Rio Conference was a hero moment for the planet, and brought together a few wonkily named international groups—United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the Convention to Combat Desertification (CCD), and the Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD)—all focused on preventing the environmental destruction of the planet. They drafted and signed an agreement that is known as Agenda 21, an aspirational declaration that provided the checklist for what needed to be done to stop climate change, but didn’t spell out how to do it (conspiracy theorists often cite Agenda 21 as a key part of a plan in which the UN takes over the world). In essence, the summit’s message conveyed that we needed a global transformation of attitudes and behavior, and to address new of patterns of production, sources of energy, transportation systems, and concern about the scarcity of water.

The main objective was to stabilize the environmental systems on the planet: The goal, as the official language stated was: “stabilizing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases to avoid dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.”

But as visionary as Agenda 21 was, it was non-binding. What makes the Paris talks such a big deal is that the goal–and profound need–is to create a binding agreement, signed by every country in the world.

Okay, but what about between 1988 and now?

Negotiating a long-term cooperative action is no small task. Negotiators have yet to come up with an agreement that every country in the world is willing to sign. You probably remember the Kyoto Protocol, which was adopted in 1997. The Protocol created a series of escalating targets of reduction in pollution and emissions for all the countries of the world. Because the UNFCCC recognized that developed countries carry the weight of responsibility for the current high levels of pollution and emissions and that our current climate issues are a result of more than 150 years of industrialization, the Kyoto Protocol placed a heavier burden on developed nations under the concept that when you’ve been drinking from the bar longer than everyone else, you are going to have a larger bill. Because of that burden, the United States (along with Afghanistan and Sudan) didn’t sign. If the world’s largest economy isn’t part of a climate agreement, that agreement isn’t going to do much.


If you don’t play in the extreme sports of climate geekyness, Copenhagen in 2009 was probably the last time you heard news of the climate talks. There, negotiators were supposed to create an agreement about a global reduction of emissions that, unlike Kyoto, every country would actually sign. But alas… the talks collapsed when the developed countries stopped negotiating and instead offered an agreement that many countries had pre-prepared in an effort to circumvent the negotiating process.

The now-famous “Danish Text” was leaked to the press in the first week of the conference. This document was written by the U.S. and England, though submitted by Denmark. The text proposed that developed nations—the U.S., Europe, Japan, and others—be allowed to pollute twice the amount of developing countries—China, India, Russia, Brazil, etc—for the next 50 years. Lumumba Stanislas Di-Aping, the Sudanese negotiator said, “It is asking Africa to sign a suicide pact, an incineration pact in order to maintain the economic dependence of a few countries,” and that it would result in Africa’s death.

The world governments left Copenhagen with another non-binding agreement, the Copenhagen Accord, which recognized that temperature changes need to stay below 2 degrees Celsius (a number that’s probably too large to begin with–1.5 degrees is safer, but developed nations pushed for the higher number). But, like Kyoto, it offered no path to get there, with no specific targets for countries to hit in terms of emissions reductions.

Who’s going to be there?

Along with all of the negotiators who develop the preliminary text, there are the ministers, and then the heads of state who will eventually decide on what their countries are willing to sign and commit to. There is also a massive group of people, who are called the civil society. Many of these people work for organizations who aren’t affiliated with the government (aka NGO’s), that are dedicated to addressing and solving the issues surrounding climate change. During the talks, a select few work closely with our political leaders and are given the opportunity for “interventions” at the talks where they can address the negotiators. Basically, they bring the news of what is going on inside the talks to the outside world. So along with watching the politics of the negotiations, its good to round out your climate talks coverage with input from the civil society. And while we focus our attention on what happens inside the walls of the negotiations, on the outside is a massive gathering of culture change makers, artists, activists, financial investors, community organizers who have also gathered from around the world—and they too are commingling and scheming their own plans for global change.


So what can us regular civilians do?

We’re at a nexus of having the information, consciousness, and technology to solve these enormous planetary problems. As these political leaders walk into the room to play at the game of reducing suffering in the world, they need our attention and political will.

Some will say that the talks are pointless and a massive carbon-polluting waste of time (it takes a lot of energy to fly everyone to Paris). They will say that the core of these arguments are too old, that the corporate influence on the American congress to powerful, that China’s need to keep polluting to sustain its development is too great (and that our hunger for consumerism will continue to push them to create more pollution), and that the will of the people on this planet too small.

And others will say that you have to have the long view: It is in understanding history that one makes sense of the power of how one step leads to the next. We went from learning that there is such a thing as climate change to creating and implementing sustainable design to integrating a conversation about climate justice to connecting the dots between industrial capitalism and the war on saving the planet. So every year we take another step. While it is easy to be hopeless in the face of great challenges, it is more courageous to spend every last second between now and the end of the conference advocating for a world we can believe in.

About the author

Leah Lamb writes about the environment and creative culture. She produced and hosted the Green channel at Current TV, her writing can be found in National Geographic News Watch, Spirituality & Health Magazine, GOOD Inc, and Vice.