Five questions about the Copenhagen climate talks

By David A. Fahrenthold and Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 18, 2009; A16

As President Obama heads for the U.N.-run conference, progress on key issues is unsure and prospects for a detailed agreement are bleak.


What the heck is all this?

This is a United Nations-run conference that was -- originally -- supposed to produce a new global agreement to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, because what happens after 2012 under the Kyoto Protocol is uncertain. There is a legal agreement in place, but it has no specifics in it, and countries would have to agree to a new round of targets.

But the idea of a new global agreement was scotched before the conference even started. Now countries say they're trying to produce a "political agreement." In U.N.-speak, that means a deal that settles some key issues -- such as climate targets for major greenhouse-gas emitters and the amount of money that rich nations will pay to poor ones to adapt to climate change -- and establishes a framework for inking a formal treaty next year.

Now, even that ambition looks to be in jeopardy, with key issues still unsettled.


What role is the

United States playing?

No longer the villain, but not quite the hero either. The Obama administration has been praised in Copenhagen for pledging to make emissions cuts, which was a break from the Bush administration's approach. And, in the last couple of days, U.S. officials have proposed funding for poor countries, a breakthrough credited with keeping hope of a deal alive. But U.S. negotiators were criticized by some developing countries for taking so long to act, and for demanding that major developing countries subject their emission cuts to international scrutiny. And the U.S. delegation is likely to be cautious in any emissions reductions it promises -- mindful that climate legislation is stalled in the U.S. Senate and that an angry Senate refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol under President Bill Clinton.

President Obama will arrive in Copenhagen on Friday. What he says, and whether he is able to bring bickering blocs of countries together, will likely be the best-remembered story of the U.S. involvement there.


What's the deal

with ' two degrees'?

It's a statement about the world's thermostat. This summer, world leaders gathered in Italy pledged to prevent the Earth's average temperature from warming more than two degrees Celsius, about 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, from preindustrial levels. The Copenhagen conference was supposed to work out the stickier question of how to accomplish that goal. Many vulnerable countries have called for the world to aim to curtail global temperature rise even more, by establishing an upper threshold of 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit.

For now, the world seems to be on pace to miss the goal. A consortium of U.S.-based scientists recently found that, even if all the world's countries fulfill the emissions-cutting pledges they've made so far, temperatures will rise about 3.6 degrees Celsius (6.8 degrees Fahrenheit).


Wait, didn't

'Climate-gate' show

that climate change isn't

happening after all?

No. The Climate-gate scandal involved electronic files stolen from a climate-change research center at a British university. The e-mails showed climate scientists fretting over problems in their data, and scheming to keep researchers who disagreed with them out of scientific journals. The files raised questions about whether the leading experts on the subject tried to make their field appear less messy, and the science of climate change more unanimous, than it really was.

But there was nothing in them that showed that the basic conclusions of climate science -- that Earth's temperatures are warming and that man-made pollutants appear to be trapping unusual amounts of heat in the atmosphere -- are wrong.


How is this

all going to end?

At the last possible moment. International negotiators work like procrastinating college students: Although they've had two weeks to work out their differences in Copenhagen, it's likely they will follow custom and pull off a deal on the conference's last day. The arrival of heads of state, including Obama, may speed that along, since they have authority to make deals that lower-level negotiators do not. For now, however, it seems like the hardest issues of dealing with climate change -- how deeply to cut emissions, how to make sure other countries are keeping their promises -- will be left unresolved, to be handled at another conference (with many of the same players) next year.

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