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Fear and Loathing in Warsaw: Painful Progress Toward a Global Climate Deal

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On Nov. 11, delegates from almost 200 countries descended on Warsaw for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The goal: to build momentum toward a global agreement in 2015 that would finally address climate change in a meaningful way.

This was the 19th annual "Conference of Parties," but the need for unified action has never been so acute. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently reported, glaciers are melting faster than ever; sea levels are surging; and there's a mounting danger that we'll fail to prevent temperatures rising by more than two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. With all these alarm bells ringing, you might expect a sense of urgency at these talks -- perhaps even a renewed desire to work together toward a solution. Dream on.

Instead, this two-week conference, which ended on Saturday, was mostly marked by acrimony and deepening distrust. Emotions ran high from the start as Typhoon Haiyan had ravaged the Philippines just three days before the talks began. For many participants, this catastrophe highlighted fears that extreme weather events could become more frequent and more devastating as global warming intensifies. The lead negotiator for the Philippines received a standing ovation when he declared that he'd remain on hunger strike throughout the conference "until a meaningful outcome is in sight."

I was particularly struck by the worsening mood this year among many participants from the developing world. They recognize more clearly than ever that poorer nations will bear the greatest brunt of climate change, and they are bitterly aware that no structural mechanism is in place to help their countries deal with its impact. There was also a broadly held view at the conference that rich countries have played an outsized role in causing climate change, but are doing precious little to address it. Poorer nations want the developed world to provide leadership not only in reducing emissions, but in footing the immense bill for climate change adaptation. The lead negotiator for the African group of nations reflected the fractious, mud-slinging mood of the moment, remarking that "the developed countries have caused the problem" and "one billion Africans are in harm's way."

In Warsaw, the richer nations did little to soothe such resentments. For example, Japan indicated that it's not in a position to make new commitments, and the incoming Australian government has rejected the policies of the previous government. This reinforced the impression that rich countries are wary of committing to ambitious future goals. Indeed, many developed nations are afraid that they'll become less competitive if they take the lead in cutting emissions and less developed countries fail to engage. With these divisions widening, progress is painfully difficult. In protest, environmentalists from NGOs such as Greenpeace, WWF, and Friends of the Earth walked out of the conference for the first time in the history of these talks.

None of this creates much confidence that the world's governments will band together to achieve a historic climate agreement in Paris in 2015. Yet the Warsaw conference delivered just enough progress to sustain hope.

First, it was agreed that a formal negotiating text will be produced for use at the 20th annual conference in 2014. This is a major win as it will help to focus the negotiations on the specifics of what it will take to reach a deal in 2015. Second, it was agreed that every nation should provide details of its mitigation targets by early 2015. This will offer an advance view of which countries are (or aren't) planning to pull their weight in cutting emissions. Third, real progress was made in creating new rules to protect forests. Fourth, $100 million was pledged for adaptation programs -- a drop in the bucket, but a move in the right direction.

Given these advances, the odds of achieving a climate agreement in 2015 have marginally improved. But the nature of that deal remains unclear. Will world leaders merely agree to a set of vague, voluntary pledges, or will they sign a legally-binding treaty? For now, nobody knows. My hope is that the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon will use a climate summit that he's organizing in September 2014 to clarify these goals and focus the attention of the world's leaders on what will constitute success in 2015.

To my mind, a successful climate agreement will include three priorities: real leadership by rich countries; serious engagement by developing countries; and significant financial assistance for the poorest countries to deal with the impact of climate change. As the mistrust and animosity in Warsaw proved, this won't be easy. But it's by no means impossible.

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