CSU’s Peter Backlund, associate director of CSU’s School of Global Environmental Sustainability, is in Paris this week for the 21st Conference of the Parties, a United Nations-organized annual meeting for nearly 200 countries that want to take action on climate change.
He joins a delegation that includes other CSU leaders who will serve as official observers for the conference, also called COP21.
Former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter, Jr., director of the Center for the New Energy Economy, will take part in panel discussions at the conference that cover the emissions trading in North America and state efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
For Backlund — a former senior advisor in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and leading member of the National Center for Atmospheric Research — this marks his 11th trip to a COP.
The upcoming meeting is being billed as the “most important climate meeting ever held,” but Backlund said the public, researchers and policymakers should temper their expectations. He shared his thoughts at a recent SoGES panel discussion and also in an interview with SOURCE.
Q: How do you describe this type of conference?
A: The Conference of the Parties is an incredibly important process, but I emphasize the word “process.” I’d also like to de-emphasize the COP being billed as the most important meeting ever. This is an important meeting for sure, but it is not like the participants can solve the climate change issue in a single conference. These meetings are the place where nations gather to discuss what to do about climate change, not to discuss whether it’s happening. It’s a complicated topic with a lot at stake, and the discussions will continue for decades to come.
Q: What types of agreements or commitments might be made at COP21?
A: The agreements and commitments made by countries now are supposed to be steps toward keeping global warming below 2 degrees Celsius (about 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) at the end of the century. What’s important is shifting the dynamic to countries making concrete commitments toward this goal. That work is going to have to go on for decades.
Whether or not this goal is ultimately feasible is another story. It will be very hard to keep global warming below 2 degrees. Even if we were to stop greenhouse gas emissions now, we still have decades of emissions in the pipeline.
Q: What do you predict the mood will be like among participants, given the recent attacks in Paris?
A: It will be a mix of tremendous sympathy and regret for the French people, but also determination among the participants not to let it interfere with the negotiations to deal with a huge global problem.
Q: What is the negotiating process like for countries — and how does that process work, when there are 190 countries attending?
A: The negotiations, which could involve hundreds or even a few thousand government officials – sometimes nations send large delegations, sometimes small – are embedded in the larger conference, which could include up to 30,000 people. The negotiators have been working on the text of an agreement for the last few years, and this conference is where they will try to resolve any remaining issues.
Teams of negotiators meet in what are called contact groups to work on detailed text, which then gets put together into an overall agreement. If the issues are successfully resolved, the agreement will be approved by the participating nations by the end of the conference. The whole process operates on a consensus basis. This basically means that all the participants have to agree, and that each participant has the ability to slow things down or even prevent agreement.
Q: What about financing for these efforts?
A: Prospects are good for a larger commitment to help finance these efforts. At the same time, nations still have yet to come anywhere close to agreements made in Copenhagen at COP15. In my opinion, what matters more than the actual commitments that are made in Paris is that nations follow through on the commitments made.
Q: How important is the upcoming presidential election in the United States, in terms of this topic?
A: The 2016 presidential election will be very important. One of the characteristics of our political system is that it’s easier to turn things off rather than to start things.
Looking back, when we went from the Clinton-Gore administration to Bush-Cheney, our climate change discussions and efforts changed overnight, because the new administration had different views and priorities and decided not to adhere to the climate agreement negotiated by the previous administration, the Kyoto Protocol. It is very unlikely that an agreement in Paris would take the form of a legally binding treaty like the Kyoto Protocol, because that approach did not succeed.
The reality is that success of any climate agreement depends on individual nations taking significant actions within their own national systems. Nations can commit, but they can also change their minds unless they write their climate commitments into law. The President of the United States has a big role in these types of decisions for our country, as does the Congress. It’s hard to overstate the importance of the elections.
I should add that I’m not trying to assert, by the way, that conservatives will not take climate change action. I am asserting that whoever the president is, that person will have a big role in deciding what the U.S. does about climate change during his or her term.