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Posted at 10:45 AM ET, 09/21/2009

Goals of Major U.N. Climate Meeting Unclear

* Staying Warm: Full Forecast | Obama Should Make a Climate Speech *

In a sign of determination mixed with desperation, world leaders will gather in New York tomorrow for a United Nations-sponsored forum on climate change that is aimed at jump-starting the stalled negotiations of a new global climate treaty. With the next round of formal climate treaty negotiations scheduled to take place in Copenhagen, Denmark in less than three months, leaders are running out of time to iron out major disagreements on key issues.

Plenty of potentially show-stopping disagreements exist, ranging from the amount and timing of greenhouse-gas emissions reductions, to how much aid should be given to developing countries to help them adapt to the impacts of climate change and grow their economies in a cleaner manner. Studies have shown that poorer countries will bear the brunt of climate change impacts, largely because they don't have as much capacity to adapt to changing conditions as industrialized countries do.

Keep reading for more on tomorrow's U.N. climate meeting...

During the past few months there has been a steady erosion of expectations for the Copenhagen summit, despite continuing calls from many in the scientific community that steep reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions must begin soon if the worst potential effects of climate change are to be avoided.

At one point it appeared that a new treaty was possible. Then things shifted to a discussion of potential frameworks that could be agreed to in Copenhagen, with the details to be filled in at subsequent meetings. But now even this appears to be optimistic, according to some observers, although it's difficult to tell how much of the expectations game is diplomatic posturing and how much reflects reality.

The fact that U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon called Tuesday's meeting, which is being billed as the highest-level discussion of climate change ever conducted (the heads of state of most major economies will take part), indicates the growing anxiety in world capitals that the Copenhagen talks won't result in a new treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012.

Part of the pessimism stems from the political environment in the United States, where the health care debate has been consuming much of the political oxygen in Washington. During Tuesday's meeting, President Barack Obama is scheduled to make a high-profile speech that will help clarify to world leaders where the U.S. stands on a new climate treaty.

While it is encouraging that Obama is going to address Tuesday's meeting in person (he is not currently expected to go to Copenhagen), it's not clear what message he intends to deliver. For example, it's unclear if Obama will discuss the scientific evidence for and against manmade climate change, as I encouraged in a recent column, as have many leaders in the environmental community.

Also, it's doubtful that his speech will earn much domestic media coverage beyond Tuesday, considering the continued high-profile wrangling over other issues, such as health care. However, the president's address could prove to be significant if it gives world leaders greater confidence that the U.S. is willing to significantly reduce its emissions, and work with other countries to meet the already agreed upon goal of containing global warming to a two-degree Celsius increase above preindustrial temperatures.

The one-day U.N. confab, which can be characterized as a pre-meeting meeting, or a meeting about a meeting, has an interesting format. Rather than mirror the restrictive, formal procedures of typical U.N. negotiations, leaders have agreed to closed-door, free-form sessions with no predetermined outcome or concrete goal in mind. I suppose that this way, no one can accuse heads of state of falling short of their goal on Tuesday. Perhaps all summits should be set up like this?

The New York Times compared the format to "a series of college seminars designed to forge political momentum," and noted that there is no expected outcome other than a collective willingness to work with other countries to solve the climate problem.

"Senior organizers said they had never been involved in such a high-level summit meeting where the outcome was not predetermined," the Times reported.

The same could probably be said for climate change in general, since many scientists have described the possible unintentional altering of Earth's climate as a large experiment whose precise outcome is unknown. However, if many of the scientific studies are to be believed, a failure to tackle the climate problem in the near future could ensure that for many regions, the outcome is quite bleak indeed. For this reason, a lot is riding on the climate talks, be they formal, informal (Hawaiian shirt day?), or somewhere in between.

The views expressed here are the author's alone and do not represent any position of the Washington Post, its news staff or the Capital Weather Gang.

By  |  10:45 AM ET, 09/21/2009

Categories:  Climate Change, Climate Change, Climate Change, Climate Change

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