CLIMATE -- December 11, 2009 at 6:40 PM ET
Ray Suarez: Monumental Week for Climate Ahead in Copenhagen
Just keep repeating to yourself: If any of this was easy, Kyoto would have worked.
It's been 12 years since delegations from around the world met in Japan to discuss a coordinated global response to rising levels of greenhouse gases in the earth's atmosphere. Back then, the United States was on board, sort of, with the notion that the biggest emitters, and the emitters of the future, had to get together to craft an agreement that wouldn't stifle economic development, and still protect the earth and its people.
What followed? Not a lot. President Clinton could never have gotten the signature he affixed to the Kyoto Protocol ratified by the U.S. Senate. China and India embarked on a decade of jaw-dropping economic growth. Researchers have pointed to much data they say show that the ice shelf in the Antarctic continued to melt, as did the Arctic ice cap and the icebergs of Greenland.
And while all those things were happening, factory smokestacks, automobile tailpipes, cooking fires and livestock digestive systems across the world kept belching greenhouse gases into the air. The countries of the world postponed the day of reckoning, but the disrupted natural systems of the world, if you believe the most alarmed climate scientists, continued to follow their predicted course.
We are at the point, according to members of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, that even if all emissions were to cease tomorrow, the world would still have to withstand decades more of climate change. Following that logic, the world's leaders are being asked to agree to a compact that will commit them to difficult, sometimes painful change, to avert disasters far, far in the future.
People in the advanced economies marvel at the pace of change in China and India, accompanied by huge increases in the gases released into the atmosphere. But for all the change, not millions, but hundreds of millions of Chinese and Indians remain basically untouched by the tremendous economic gains. Those countries blame most of today's problems on the century of emissions that preceded their own economic ascent. It is clear from their criticism of the United States both during and running up to Copenhagen, the Chinese think the wealthiest countries of the world, which profited from dirty industrialization, should carry the heaviest burdens of emissions cutbacks.
The Indians and the Chinese have enormous domestic constituencies to satisfy, citizens who want to get much richer in the 21st century. The U.S., the European Union, and the Asian tigers have a little different problem. They want to stay rich. And as democracies, they can't broker a deal in Copenhagen that gets out too far ahead of their own citizens' will. Exhibit A: Even with the drastic change in the political landscape since Kyoto, President Obama can't be sure that any agreement that attempts to limit future American emissions can get through a Senate with a 60-seat Democratic caucus.
The other party trying to be heard, and understood, in Copenhagen consists of the poorest, and most environmentally fragile countries in the world. As a group, they contribute very little to the world's total emissions of greenhouse gases. And, as a group, they are many of the countries likeliest to feel the most threatening and earliest effects of global climate change. They want the rapidly industrializing and wealthiest places on the globe to both help them deal with the effects of the changes, and help them build their economies.
Will the leaders of the country's poorest nations take a deal that does not demand serious action on climate change in exchange for aid that would alleviate some of their suffering? That's one possible outcome. With the enormous scientific, political, and economic debate unleashed in the Danish capital, are all the interested parties ready to take the path of least resistance, and come up with a little greenwash that allows a face-saving, ineffective agreement? Are the world's representatives sure that the predictions of so many scientists are true?
The next seven days will answer that question.
I'll be there with a team from the PBS NewsHour to bring you more of the inside game of the Copenhagen deliberations. We'll be on-air and online -- in photos, video, text and audio -- truly a multiplatform week of coverage for a devilishly complex set of challenges.