In the run-up to the U.N.’s climate change conference, a few (small) signs of hope

REUTERS/Kim Kyung Hoon
Beijing, world famous for its gray-brown skies, is shutting down its coal-fired power plants.

It seems fitting. The world’s governments face a deadline at the end this month to reveal their goals for reducing carbon emissions ahead of a major U.N. conference in Paris. But with the deadline looming, the City of Light was itself choking this week in a thick blanket of smog.

You think maybe Mother Nature was trying to make a point? 

Be it domestic or international, the politics of pollution and climate change are always contentious. In the U.S. this week, the Supreme Court heard the latest challenge to the Obama administration’s efforts to toughen environmental regulation. This time it was about toxic pollutants released by power plants.

Then there’s the case of Chinese journalist Chai Jing, which was truly outrageous. In case you missed it, her documentary, “Under the Dome,” went viral in China after it was released about a month ago. In style and impact, it was compared to Al Gore’s 2006 film “An Inconvenient Truth.” Estimates of the number of people who saw it ran into the hundreds of millions.

But little more than a week after the film was released on the Internet, censors shut it down.  (You can still watch it here.)  This happened even as a top scientist — in a rare, high-profile interview — warned of the huge impact climate change could have on China.

International diplomacy usually is more polite and process-oriented than the work of a Chinese censor. When it comes to fighting climate change, it’s often about trying to maneuver the other guy into being the first with the most. That hasn’t worked out so great. 

The Paris gathering, which will take place in December, is meant to be different. Diplomats are striving for a comprehensive deal with mandatory limits on emissions. And in order to make clear how much work needs to be done to reach those goals, each country is supposed to declare a goal by March 31.

Of course, there are only a few of these reports that really matter: China and the U.S.; the European Union, India, Japan, Brazil, Russia, Canada, Australia, etc.

The EU announced its position earlier this month: By 2030, it will reduce emissions to 40 percent below the level of 1990. The U.S. says it will meet the March 31 deadline to make a pledge and is likely to be roughly in line with the EU, once different methodology is taken into account. But China and India say they won’t be ready until mid-year.

Then, there is the question of whether the limits should be something less than mandatory.

You could almost guarantee that officials trying to keep the process moving would find a silver lining or two. In this interview, the chief U.S. climate negotiator acknowledges that one could wish for more, but finds the projected pledges not so bad. He even finds some positive things to say about China’s expected pledge that its emissions will peak in 15 years – a point at which it also will be getting 20 percent of its energy from renewable sources and nuclear power. 

At the same time, EU climate chief Miguel Arias Canete is saying that the conference won’t be a failure even if the pledges fail to reach the stated goal: keeping the increase in Earth’s temperature to the key marker of 2 degrees centigrade. 

If that sounds like the same-old same-old, a few small signs of hope also have popped up this month — not that even the most sunny optimist thinks we’ll get out of this without more damage.

As frustrating as they are to watch, the U.N. and the world’s diplomats do real work in representing mankind — which has a habit of getting its act together only in a crisis (and sometimes not even then). The crisis is upon us, and the diplomats are starting to act. This discussion already seems more focused. What they come up with in Paris is almost certain to be inadequate, but it will be a start.

Meanwhile, worldwide emissions actually leveled off in 2014, compared to a year earlier.

Beijing, world famous for its gray-brown skies, is shutting down its coal-fired power plants.

And at the same time, technological innovations are boosting efficiency and making renewable energy much cheaper, for individuals as well as large commercial customers. Governments are finding ways to encourage the transformation.

A figure no less than Gore himself is changing his tune. Perhaps you saw this recent New York Times piece. He prefers now to talk about the exponential growth in wind and solar power, how their use is spreading to places like Bangladesh and the Persian Gulf, and about how fast their cost has dropped.

Here’s the money quote from that interview. Even if you’ve already seen it, it’s worth repeating, if only for the novelty: “We’re going to win this. The only question is how long it takes.”

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by joe smith on 03/27/2015 - 11:40 am.

    In a recent Gallup poll climate change ranked 14th outta 15 current issues facing Americans. Only issue Americans are least concerned with is race relations. With all the time the media spends pushing those 2 (climate/race) issues you would think they would rank higher on the list. Just goes to show you can fool some of the people some of the time but can’t fool all of the people all of the time.
    Americans are concerned about jobs, economy, size and spending of Federal Govt, education, national safety and other issues more than climate change.

  2. Submitted by John Clark on 03/27/2015 - 06:29 pm.

    Speaking of polls

    If climate change does not show up as a high concern on a Gallup poll of average U.S. citizens, this is not too surprising. There is a rather large gap between climate scientists, and the average public on the subject of global warming.

    This gap in scientific knowledge also shows up in another questionnaire/poll, this one sponsored by the National Science Foundation. In this poll, a cross section of 2000 Americans were asked, “does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth?”, and 24% of the respondents to this question did not get the answer right! Results of this same test also showed that fewer than half of those questioned, 48%, are aware that humans evolved from earlier species of animals. And in a different, but very similar NSF poll, 42% of the American public said that astrology is either “very scientific” or “sort of scientific”.

    Suffice it to say that the average American may not be always the most knowledgeable in the field of science. So when it comes to making informed public policy decisions on how to address the issue of climate change, do we listen to the majority of climate scientists, or do we listen to others? Good question here.

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