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EXISTENTIAL THREAT

The Paris climate talks are raising some of the biggest questions humanity has ever had to face

Indigenous leaders from all over the world pray as they sail on the Seine.
Reuters/Gonzalo Fuentes
Awaiting a deal.
  • Cassie Werber
By Cassie Werber

Reporter

This article is more than 2 years old.

In Paris, the negotiations over a global climate deal are drawing to a close. Will the debates result in decisive action against global warming, or fail as other attempts have failed?

There are encouraging signs. A ”coalition of high ambition” has emerged, featuring a group of over 100 countries (more than half those at the talks) coming together to pledge to keep global warming below 1.5ºC from pre-industrial levels, instead of the more widely accepted 2ºC. And a goal to achieve “greenhouse gas emissions neutrality”—offsetting all emissions with equivalent carbon-capturing processes—is a sign of serious (if somewhat vague) engagement with a low-carbon future.

“The whole topic of conversation has shifted from, ‘should we be working together, is it right that we should all work in a globally collaborative way’ to now ‘have we set ourselves sufficient ambition, should we crank up the ambition?’,” Chris Rapley, a professor of climate science at University College London, told Carbon Brief.

He added: “This is why I see this as such a positive point in this long, laborious three-decade process. I think that the mood music has completely changed. The zeitgeist has changed.”

Maybe so, but plenty of hurdles remain even at this late stage in the talks. That’s not just because finding international consensus on anything is difficult. It’s because the unique and devastating dangers of climate change are forcing society to question some of the fundamental tenets of how we live, how we have lived, and how we plan to live in the future.

Sins of the past

The developed world owes its status and wealth to the fact it burned fossil fuels with abandon before anyone understood the repercussions (and for plenty of time after).

Now, poorer countries are bearing the brunt of the effects of past emissions, like rising sea levels and more intense storms. At the same time, countries of the brink of rapid growth—which could pull billions out of poverty—are being told to curb their ambitions because burning carbon on anything like the scale of the past would result in a global disaster of almost unimaginable proportions.

One key focus of the talks has, therefore, been “differentiation“—how rich and poor countries vary their responses to the overall imperative to reduce emissions. This has been taken to mean that those with the money and technology should help the others—with trillions of dollars worth of support to “leapfrog” the fossil-fuel age.

Here’s the problem. Many countries that are already suffering the effects of climate change want those who became rich on carbon to compensate them. If rich countries agree to this, though, it may be seen as taking responsibility for the damage, opening them up to lawsuits and other costly problems on top of an already hefty bill for carbon mitigation.

As ever, negotiators will have to hammer out who pays for what, and when. There have been some big numbers bandied about—like a $3.5 trillion bill for helping poorer countries.

Made to measure

Tracking progress against goals is another sticking point. Many developing countries don’t yet have robust enough systems in place to measure national emissions. That’s making it hard to agree on a formal way to commit to cuts.

The top-down approach—with a central authority allocating emissions to each country—has proved impossible to manage in the past. This has left countries to propose their own targets which, when added up, fall far short of what the world needs to curtail climate change.

As Arnold Schwartzernegger said this week, ”stuff that happens in the future does not mean anything to people.”

In the case of climate change, we wrestle with abstract, frequently updated projections, trying to plan for a distant and ever-changing future plan in which we ourselves won’t be alive. There are few challenges like it.

As climate scientists will attest, measuring what’s actually happening with the climate, and what might happen in a range of scenarios with an almost unlimited number of variables, is fiendishly difficult. But we are now relying on our political leaders to get to grips with it, because the outcome is genuinely a matter of life or death.

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