5 questions about the Copenhagen climate talks

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 19, 2009; A06


What does the deal say?

It says that both industrialized and still-developing countries should make a common list of their goals for tackling climate change, and that there should be some international mechanism for checking up on their progress. It also makes a provision for rich countries to mobilize funding that would flow to poor ones to help them adapt to flooding, sea-level rise, droughts and other effects of climate change.

It also includes a vow not to let global average temperatures increase more than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit above pre-industrial levels -- something that leaders of industrialized nations had agreed to over the summer.


What doesn't it say?

A good bit. It doesn't provide a sweeping successor to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which holds the signatories to strict cuts in emissions. That was the original hope for Copenhagen, but it had been abandoned weeks ago as unworkable.

In addition, it doesn't include a goal for reducing emissions worldwide by 2050. And it doesn't even set a specific date by which a new agreement must be reached, leaving the future of this process uncertain.


Is the problem of climate change solved?

Not even close. Scientists say that even if the countries followed today's commitments to the letter, they wouldn't succeed in halting climate change. In fact, the kind of short-term cuts by industrialized countries that the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says are necessary -- a 25 to 40 percent reduction, measured against 1990 levels, by 2020 -- weren't really on the table at this conference.


Whose fault is all this?

Depends on whom you're asking. A popular answer this week was the U.S. Senate, which has not passed a climate-change bill in the months since the House passed one this summer. As of now, a trio of senators -- John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) -- are working to draft a bill.

Others are likely to blame China, which had a strong bargaining position, because any agreement would need its participation to seem legitimate. China has said it will not unduly sacrifice economic growth or sovereignty to help solve a problem that the West has contributed to for centuries.


What lessons should world leaders learn from this?

For one: Just because climate change doesn't respect borders doesn't mean borders don't matter.

In past months, the Senate climate debate has shown that, despite exhortations that the problem threatens every American, many senators have focused on their states' interests first. In past weeks, a similar dynamic has played out among nations. Altering the dynamic of future conferences will require finding a way to make them feel their short-term national interests are served.

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