Summit of the Week

Climate Change: Saviours of the Planet

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Can the gathering in Paris produce a deal that’s not only good for the world but also acceptable to all?
Not since 1948, when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was signed in Paris, have so many world leaders descended together in France. According to some, this is the world’s largest gathering of heads of state ever outside the United Nations headquarters. The COP21 (the 21st yearly session of the Conference of Parties), or the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference, has attracted around 150 world leaders, and negotiators from 195 countries of different ideological hues. And along with them have come the doomsday activists and protestors, Bill Gates and his billionaire friends intent on saving the world, not to mention firms that don’t track their carbon footprint or publish their CO2 emission data but ‘greenwash’ their image by sponsoring the event. They are all here, allies and foes, huddled together in a Parisian suburb, all playing their individual roles to script the possible blueprint of a clean future.

During the summit itself, there were attempts to convey the import of the moment with the flourish of language, from overused metaphors (“The eyes of the world are upon us”: Laurent Fabius, president of COP21; “The hope of all humanity rests on your shoulders”: French President François Hollande) to more effective phrases (“If the planet were a patient, we would have treated her long ago”: Prince Charles; “There are no jobs on a dead planet”: Sharan Burrow, general secretary, International Trade Union Confederation).

But what was really noticeable this year was a more expressive acknowledgement of the perils of climate change, a certain friendliness and lack of hostility, unlike those that have occurred before. Perhaps the terror attacks in Paris last month had something to do with it. Hollande even acknowledged this when he told reporters, “It’s set off well. But it has to arrive too.” The general consensus going by the speeches so far is that climate change, like terror, is one of the most pressing issues of our time. It is a turning point in history, as leader after leader has warned us, where we can either arrest the crisis or lose the planet. Year 2015 is expected to end up as the planet’s warmest year in millennia.

The goal of the conference is to come up with a legally binding agreement on climate to limit global warming to 2≤ Celsius above pre-industrial limits, the widely-accepted temperature threshold to avert a catastrophe. But as world leaders wrap up their speeches and leave behind their officials to the hard work of framing a deal, the question will be how. How to convert talks into effective action? There are far too many competing needs to make this easy. The developed world, led by the US, wants to see ambitious low-carbon targets and periodic reviews. The developing world, where India and China have emerged as heavyweights, wants the advanced countries to take on the lion’s share of the responsibility to mitigate global warming. There is a demand from the poorest countries that the richer countries come up with $100 billion as a minimum down payment to help respond to the effects of the warming of the planet. There are also smaller groups that face the biggest dangers of climate change like the Climate Vulnerable Forum, the Alliance of Small Island States, and the Least Developed Countries that are demanding the strongest possible climate deal. And then there are countries like Russia, Venezuela, and Saudi Arabia, countries which produce the most fossil fuels, that will almost certainly push for the weakest deal possible.

Christopher Loeak, president of the Marshall Islands, told the congregation, as reported by The Telegraph, “Everything I know, and everyone I love, is in the hands of those of us gathered here today.”

The question is, can they do what’s needed?