11/29/2012 06:44 pm ET Updated Jan 29, 2013

UN Climate Conference in Qatar: A Historical Perspective

Our collective weather appears to be at a turning point, fueled by what some scientists are now calling climate disruption. Many of us either have personally suffered at the hands of unprecedented extreme weather events or know someone who has. We've borne witness to shocking images: record droughts, devastating floods, massive wildfires, and destructive hurricanes ravaging shorelines, the listgoes on.

Seventeen previous United Nations Conferences of Parties (COPs) have strived to become climate mitigation enforcers. These annual gatherings of international policymakers seek to protect people, property, and our planet. Each COP has attempted to acquire international, legally binding authority to police our planet, limit greenhouse gas emissions, and verify compliance of those emissions. They have made progress, but have failed to forge an agreement that promises a sustainableplanet for future generations.

More than 190 nations have gathered in Doha, Qatar for COP 18 where they hope to forge global consensus on multiple climate change issues. To understand the challenges facing COP 18 and the imperative for a positive outcome, it may be helpful to reflect on a brief history of the UNFCCC, a few notable COPs, and their corresponding White House administrations.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was created at the 1992 "Earth Summit" in Rio de Janeiro with the aim of "preventing dangerous human interference with the climate system." The U.S. joined more than 150 nations in signing the Convention and the annual COP serves as the "supreme body" of the Convention with the "highest decision-making authority."

In 1988, presidential candidate George H. W. Bush stumped, "Those who think we are powerless to do anything about the 'greenhouse gas effect' are forgetting the 'White House effect.' As president, I intend to do something about it." Bush did sign the 1992 UNFCCC treaty, but did little to limit emissions during his presidency.

The December 1997 COP 3, held in Kyoto, Japan was the most prominent conference to date. The UNFCCC treaty previously signed by Bush had set no mandatory limits on greenhouse gas emissions for individual nations, and it contained no enforcement provisions; treaty provisions called for subsequent updates that would set mandatory limits, but it was not a legally binding document.

More than 10,000 participants from 161 countries attended COP 3 with the goal of finally establishing mandatory, legally binding targets that would reduce greenhouse gas concentrations. The outcome was "The Kyoto Protocol," which set binding greenhouse gas emissions limits on 37 industrialized countries and the European Union. These nations were to reduce emissions by an average of five percent against 1990 levels. The Kyoto Protocol entered into force on February 16, 2005. The United States symbolically signed the Kyoto Protocol, but we stand alone as the only industrialized nation that never officially ratified it.

During their 1992 campaign, President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore (1993-2001) had both pledged to outshine their predecessors on environmental issues. Even with the support of Gore's strong environmental credentials, however, the Clinton administration was no more successful than the first Bush administration at achieving meaningful, mandatory climate change legislation.

During his eight years in office, George W. Bush (2001-2009) displayed a dearth of global cooperation on climate change. Shortly after taking office, he announced that he would not submit the Kyoto Protocol to the Senate for ratification. In a letter to the Senate, he called the Kyoto Protocol "fatally flawed," citing its exemption of China and India from compliance, his belief that it would cause serious harm to the U.S. economy, and his feeling that the scientific knowledge on climate change was incomplete.

In spite of limited U.S. engagement, the internationalcommunity pressed forward. The December 2007 COP 13 in Bali intended to give direction for the negotiating process leading up to a post-Kyoto Protocol, which was due to expire in 2012. The resulting Bali Roadmap led negotiators through the 2008 COP 14 in Poznan, Poland, en route to COP15 in Copenhagen, Denmark.

COP 15 in Copenhagen held the potential to reshape global greenhouse gas emission targets and concomitant control of rising global temperatures for decades to come. Copenhagen is rated as the greenest major city in Europe and aims to become the world's first carbon-neutral capital city by 2025. The city had even been dubbed "Hopenhagen," in the run up to COP 15 in December 2009, underscoring the fervent hope that the conference would build a better future for our planet.

Unfortunately, "Hopenhagen" did not live up to its name. International haggling over targets, money, and transparency was intense and intractable. The resulting list of promises under the non-binding Copenhagen Accord was weak, to say the least. In fact, the UNFCCC parties did not formally adopt the accord--they could only agree to "take note" of the document. COP 15 redefined the geopolitical landscape, with the emergence of China and India as climate-negotiation superpowers.

COP 15 was followed by COP 16 in Cancun, Mexico and COP17 in Durban, South Africa. The COP 16 Cancun Agreements achieved modest outcomes. A marathon negotiating schedule at COP 17 resulted in The Durban Platform. Here, parties agreed to create a legally binding global treaty by 2015, with an effective date of 2020. In a departure from previous agreements, China and India would be bound by this treaty.

It's been a long road -- 20 years and 17 COPS -- from the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio to COP 18 in Doha. Member nations have voiced, in strong terms, our need to curb greenhouse gas emissions; the science has become increasingly robust. We must limit our greenhouse gas emissions for future sustainability.

We have neither slowed, nor reversed the growth of greenhouse gas emissions. President Obama reaffirmed our moral obligation to future generations in his recent election night address, "We want our children to live in an America that isn't ... threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet." The time to begin rolling back the specter of a warming planet is now.

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