During a year with a monster storm and scorching heat waves, the US has experienced the kind of freakish weather that many scientists say will occur more often on a warming planet.
As US President Barack Obama talks about global warming again, climate activists are cautiously optimistic that the US will be more than a disinterested bystander when the UN’s Doha Climate Change Conference begins today in Qatar.
Climate officials and environment ministers meeting in the Qatari capital of Doha over the next two weeks will not arrive at an answer to the global temperature rise that is melting Arctic Sea ice and permafrost, raising and acidifying the seas, and shifting rainfall patterns.
They will focus on side issues, like extending the Kyoto Protocol — an expiring emissions pact with a dwindling number of members — and climate funding for poor states.
They will also try to structure the talks for a new global climate deal that is supposed to be adopted in 2015, a process in which US leadership is considered crucial.
Many were disappointed that Obama did not put more emphasis on climate change during his first term. He took some steps to rein in emissions, such as sharply increasing fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks. Yet a climate bill that would have capped US emissions stalled in the US Senate.
The world tried to move forward without Washington after former US president George W. Bush’s administration abandoned the Kyoto Protocol, a 1997 pact limiting greenhouse emissions from industrialized nations. As that agreement expires this year, the climate curves are still pointing in the wrong direction.
The concentration of heat-trapping gases like carbon dioxide has jumped 20 percent since 2000, primarily from the burning of fossil fuels, a UN report released last week showed. Each year, the gap between what researchers say must be done to reverse this trend and what is being done gets wider.
Bridging that gap, through clean technology and renewable energy, is not just up to the US, but to countries like India and China whose carbon emissions are growing the fastest as their economies expand.
However, Obama raised hopes of a more robust US role in the talks when he called for a national “conversation” on climate change after winning re-election. The issue had been virtually absent in the presidential campaigning until Hurricane Sandy slammed into the east coast.
Obama still faces domestic political constraints and there is little hope of the US increasing its voluntary pledge in the UN talks of cutting emissions by 17 percent by 2020 compared to 2005 levels. Still, just a signal that Washington has faith in the international process would go a long way, analysts said.
“The perception of many negotiators and countries is that the US is not really interested in increasing action on climate change in general,” said Bill Hare, senior scientist at Climate Analytics, a non-profit organization based in Berlin, Germany.
For example, the US could stop “talking down” the stated goal of the UN talks: to keep the temperature rise below 2oC compared to pre-industrial levels, Hare said.
US Special Envoy on Climate Change Todd Stern alarmed climate activists in August when he said that “insisting on a structure that would guarantee such a goal will only lead to deadlock.”
He later clarified that the US still supports the 2oC target, but favors a more flexible way to reach it than dividing up carbon rights.
Countries adopted the 2oC target in 2009, reasoning that a warming world is dangerous, with flooding of coastal cities and island nations, disruptions to agriculture and drinking water, and the spread of diseases and the extinction of species.
A recent World Bank report showed the world is on track to 4oC of warming. The US, alone among industrialized countries, did not ratify the Kyoto Protocol because it found it unfair that China and other emerging economies were exempt from any binding emissions targets. The US and other rich countries say that firewall must be removed as the talks enter a new phase aimed at adopting a new climate treaty by 2015 that applies to all countries.
China — now the world’s top carbon dioxide emitter — wants to keep a clear line between developed and developing countries, saying that historically, the former bear the brunt of the responsibility for man-made climate change.
The issue is unlikely to be resolved in Doha, where talks will focus on extending Kyoto as a stopgap measure while negotiators work on a wider deal, which would take effect in 2020.
The 27-nation EU, Switzerland, Norway and Australia are on board, but New Zealand, Canada and Japan do not want to be part of a second commitment period of Kyoto. That means the extended treaty would cover only about 15 percent of global emissions.
Delegates in Doha will also try to finalize the rules of the Green Climate Fund, which is supposed to raise US$100 billion a year by 2020. Financed by richer nations, the fund would support poorer states in converting to cleaner energy sources, and in adapting to a shifting climate that may damage people’s health, agriculture and economies.
In addition, countries need to agree on a plan to guide the negotiations on a new treaty. Without a timeframe with clear mileposts, there is a risk of a repeat in 2015 of the hyped-up, but ultimately disappointing, 2009 Copenhagen summit.
Judging by previous conferences, negotiations in Doha will ebb and flow, with progress one day being replaced by bitter discord the next.
In the end, bleary-eyed delegates will emerge with some face-saving “accord” or “plan of action” that keeps the talks alive another year, but does little to address the core problem.