11/24/2014 03:24 pm ET Updated Jan 24, 2015

Preparing for COP20

TIMOTHY A. CLARY via Getty Images

On December 1st, the 20th Conference of the Parties (COP20) will commence in Lima, Peru to continue attempts to draft a global treaty on climate change. It has been 25 years since the international community called for action on greenhouse gases, 26 since climate scientist James Hansen testified to U.S. congressional committees about global warming.

When the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was adopted in 1992 at the Rio Earth Summit, treaty negotiators borrowed language from the Montreal Protocol (an agreement that addressed chemicals destroying the ozone layer): that member states would "act in the interests of human safety even in the face of scientific uncertainty." In the time since then, the scientific uncertainty about climate change and its causes has been greatly diminished. Thousands of technical peer-reviewed papers are published each year, and in the most recent report (AR5) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, experts expressed high confidence level (over 95%) that climate change is indeed human-caused.

A number of factors and events from the past year will make COP20 not only important, but also interesting.

  • COP21 in Paris (2015) is the target for adopting a legally-binding treaty that will both reduce greenhouse gas emissions sufficiently to limit the global temperature rise to 2ºC and make major progress on issues related to managing risks of extreme weather events and assisting developing countries in adapting to the impacts of climate change already being experienced. Thus, the final targets and language will have to be developed in Lima.
  • In order to "galvanize and catalyze climate action" in advance of COP20, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon invited world leaders to a Climate Summit this past September; over 100 showed up. Two days before the summit, the largest climate march in history took place with 2646 events in 162 countries. More than 300,000 people marched in the streets of New York City alone.
  • The United Nations hosted 13 Open Working Group sessions to develop the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals. Combating global climate change was at the forefront of these discussions. Debate was not over whether climate change should or shouldn't be a goal, but whether it should be a stand-alone goal or a component of all SDGs.
  • According to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the globally averaged temperatures over land and ocean surfaces for June, September, and October 2014 were the highest since record keeping began in 1880. October marked the 356th consecutive month (almost 30 years) with a global temperature above the 20th century average. The last below-average global temperature for any month was in February 1985. 2014 is on track to be the warmest year on record globally. Welcome to our new normal.
  • Slower to warm due to the physical and chemical properties of water, our oceans are now demonstrating the anticipated changes. The September 2014 global sea surface temperature was the highest on record for any month. Did these warming waters have any impact on Typhoon Nuri - the recent storm that hit Alaska? Perhaps. Meteorologists believe that Nuri may have been one of the deepest extra-tropical low pressure systems on record in the North Pacific. There have been many of these "strongest-storms-ever" around the globe recently.
  • Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels surpassed the 400 ppm mark this past spring. Unlike the stock market, rising values are not what we are hoping for with greenhouse gases. According to an October 2009 paper in the highly respected journal Science, you have to go back 15 million years to find atmospheric conditions like that in our atmosphere -- long before Homo sapiens were around. According to UCLA professor Aradhna Tripati, the lead author on that paper, "The last time carbon dioxide levels were apparently as high as they are today temperatures were 5 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit higher than they are today, the sea level was approximately 75 to 120 feet higher than today, there was no permanent sea ice cap in the Arctic and very little ice on Antarctica and Greenland."
  • The November election results will bring to Washington a Republican-controlled House and Senate. Party leaders have already vowed to revoke regulations aimed at tackling carbon pollution and spent the past two weeks trying to push through approval of the controversial Keystone pipeline project. But seemingly out of the blue, came the announcement of a historic climate-related agreement between the U.S. and China. While the proposed targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions of these two countries are not sufficient to "fix" the problem of global climate change, this is a crucial first step. These two nations with the largest carbon footprints have been amongst the most recalcitrant parties at the COPs. No doubt this agreement will lead to a showdown in Washington, but it could really provide the spark needed to ignite progress at the international negotiation table.

Stay tuned! 2014 still has several more weeks to add even more interesting chapters into the climate history book.