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A Crash Course on COP21 (a.k.a. the Paris Climate Talks)

Here’s what you need to know. #EarthToParis

In the heart of Paris, this lightshow demonstrates how nanotechnology that reflects solar radiation could reduce extreme temperatures in our cities. It’s an initiative in support of the upcoming climate conference COP21. Image via Flickr user Troy David Johnston (cc).

If you’ve seen the mysterious term “COP21” pop up a lot in your newsfeed lately, but you’re afraid to admit you’re not really sure why, fear not. As Neil deGrasse Tyson put it in his book The Sky Is Not the Limit: Adventures of an Urban Astrophysicist, “There is no shame in not knowing. The problem arises when irrational thought and attendant behavior fill the vacuum left by ignorance.”

Let’s fill that vacuum with knowedge, shall we?

So … What the Heck Is COP21?

During negotiations in Bonn this week, DHL illuminated its building in support of COP21—all powered by renewable energy. Image via Twitter user @UNFCCC.

Though “COP” may seem like an inscrutable acronym at first glance, it simply stands for the Conference of Parties. Every year for the last two decades, world leaders have gathered for a United Nations convention about climate change. And the Conference of Parties is the supreme decision-making body of that convention. There, it’s expected that all leaders in attendance will sign an agreement outlining the steps that 190 countries must take to save the planet.

We’re just about 40 days or so away from COP21, taking place November 30-December 11* in Paris, and there’s a lot at stake. With current commitments on greenhouse gas emissions running out by 2020—and many scientists suggesting that we’ve reached a climate change tipping point—it’s arguably the most important U.N. climate conference ever.

What’s the Rush?

Scientists have repeatedly warned that if we allow the earth to warm more than 2 degrees Celsius, the amount and impact of natural disasters could wipe out entire islands, generate famine as a result of droughts and floods, and pollute our cities so much that they’ll be uninhabitable. And, as calculated by many scientists—most notably Michael E. Mann—if climate change continues at current rates, we’ll hit the 2-degree mark as soon as 2036. Currently, the temperature increase is hovering at around .8 degrees Celsius over the past 100 years (depending on which data set you’re looking at), and we’ve already seen historic levels of devastation all over the world.

If It’s Such an Emergency, Why Is It So Hard to Come to an Agreement?

COP20 and COP21 presidencies briefing on last months' political milestones on the road to Paris 2015. Image via Twitter user @UNFCCC.

This week, the leaders of several countries have convened at the U.N. office in Bonn, Germany, to hash out details on the document they will bring to the negotiating table in December, when ministers, prime ministers, and presidents are expected to gather. Tensions have reportedly been high.

Tone Bjorndal, the climate change program manager for the International Federation of Liberal Youth, says the task ahead sounds simple enough: “This agreement is a signal to societies, governments, businesses, etc., that the future we want is a sustainable and fair one.”

And “fairness” is a key word in the negotiating room. The reason these meetings have been necessary for so many years is closely linked to the differences between the developed world (the United States, European Union, Japan, Canada, and Australia) and developing countries (including India, China, Ethiopia, Ghana, and several small island states).

The latter is a group of over 130 nations called the G-77 and China (there were 77 founding nations back in 1964, though the historic moniker has stuck), which believes that developed countries have a responsibility to take the lead on climate change, as well as to assist developing countries in their efforts. After all, it’s the carbon emissions from highly industrialized countries that have most directly changed the climate over recent decades. And it will take a great deal of time and money for struggling nations to adapt their infrastructures to accommodate a rapidly changing climate.

Developing countries also argue that in order for their economies to catch up to those of developed countries—sometimes referred to as the “right to development”—the cheapest and most efficient way is through using fossil fuels like oil and coal. Neither is environmentally friendly, but renewable energy sources are, for the most part, incredibly expensive. And in all fairness, fossil fuel use is how the U.S. and Europe grew to be the powerhouses they are today.

Developed nations believe that they can take on some of the responsibility, but also that developing countries do not understand the politics at play, nor do they appreciate the economic influence of large carbon emitters like oil, gas, manufacturing, and coal companies.

This week, the argument has been much the same as it was 20 years ago. The G-77 wants the United States and other developed countries to come up with more ambitious targets for reducing their carbon emissions. Developed nations also want India and China to accept responsibility for their own carbon emissions, considering their booming populations.

Even If Countries Agree, Can a Signed Document Really Change Anything?

Coming up with a global agreement “with teeth,” as Laurent Fabius, French Minister of Foreign Affairs and leader of the Paris negotiations, describes it, is one thing. But it’s hard to believe that we can stop climate change even if everyone ends up on the same page by the end of the Paris talks.

Anything is possible with enough money, though. Christiana Figueres, the Executive Secretary of the U.N. climate change body, said at last year’s round of talks in Lima that the cost of helping developing countries adapt to a changing climate while moving developed countries away from fossil fuels would be well into the trillions of dollars.

Finance is really where this agreement will have its biggest impact: The U.N. is essentially asking countries to fundamentally change how their economies grow. As the South African representative Nozipho Joyce Mxakato-Diseko said to the media here in Bonn, “Whether Paris succeeds or not depends on what we have as the core agreement on finance.”

So, What Now?

The takeaway from the U.N. climate negotiations is that climate change is a complex problem that belongs to everyone everywhere, with roots in our policies, health, wealth, development—and often our conflicts with one another. The trick in Paris is coming up with an agreement that addresses all of those issues for 190 or so different nations, while also making sure it’s one that can be taken home and ratified to make it legally binding.

This balancing act will be especially critical for the United States, as the world’s largest emitter of carbon, with many powerful leaders in Congress who are climate change deniers. Other agreements have been signed by the United States and come to Congress in the past, including the 1992 Kyoto Protocol, which stated that climate change is “man-made” and emissions need to be reduced. But the United States never ratified that protocol. The hope is that the same doesn’t happen to the Paris agreement.

It’s true that nothing will change overnight. Even after December, moving toward a more sustainable planet will be a long process. As Figueres described it recently, COP21 is a journey by train, much like the one she makes from Bonn to Paris to meet with leaders about the next round of talks. “I take the train and arrive in Brussels. Someone will say to me, ‘Did you fail to arrive in Paris?’ No! I’m on my way to Paris still, I have not yet arrived.”

As long as we stand together, we can ensure that train remains in motion.

Let’s make sure all the leaders heading to COP21 hear our voice. Find out how you can take part in an extraordinary movement called Earth to Paris by visiting And start sending your message to leaders now with the hashtag #EarthToParis.

*This sentence was updated to clarify the dates of COP21.

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