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Paris climate summit: A bluffer's guide

They won’t be carving up empires, renegotiating trade pacts, or creating a new kingdom. The goal of the talks is more fundamental: to stave off global collapse.

From Nov. 30 to Dec. 11, Barack Obama and leaders from every nation will gather in Paris for the United Nations climate change conference — a 10-day meeting of historic proportions. They won’t be carving up empires, renegotiating trade pacts, or creating a new kingdom. The goal of the talks is more fundamental: to stop global warming.

The past three decades have already been the hottest on record and 2015 is expected to set a scorching new high. If we don’t curtail the warming soon — by scaling back on the heat-trapping pollution that comes from the oil, gas and coal we burn for energy — we risk “severe, pervasive, and irreversible” damage to the planet, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. 

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That means stronger storms, more severe droughts, and forced migrations on a scale never before experienced. The fond hope is that the conference will yield an international agreement — the first of its kind — to cut the pollution that’s driving these extremes and keep the overall temperature increase to less than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (2 degrees Celsius.) Will it be a success? Here are the story lines to watch: 

 Republican Sabotage

Obama hopes to make history in Paris, fulfilling a campaign promise and securing an environmental legacy. Almost every Republican in Congress (and every Republican running for president) hopes to strangle that effort. 

All but giving up on support from Congress, the president has used executive efforts to remake the way America is powered. His pen-stroke reforms have become the most aggressive, far-reaching environmental legacy to date. They include the Clean Power Plan, which set the first-ever limits on emissions from U.S. power plants. And they form the basis of the president’s global promise in the run-up to Paris: a 26% drop in American carbon emissions over the next decade. 

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But Republicans argue that these programs will kill jobs and torpedo the economy. They’re trying to block Obama’s regulations, scare off his partners abroad, and undermine a delicate dance toward agreement in Paris. In March, after the United States unveiled its Paris promise, Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell drafted an open letter, urging the world to “proceed with caution” when negotiating Obama. 

Now McConnell and his allies have threatened a government shutdown. They’ve promised to hold up a crucial new spending bill that must be passed by Dec. 11 — if the bill includes the billions that Obama has pledged to developing countries battling climate change. For countries like India, this money is seen as a do-or-die component of the talks in Paris, which is why Republicans have seized on it. 

If all else fails, Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe has another plan. The esteemed author of “The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future” has said he might show up in Paris “and be the bad guy, the one man truth squad.” Don’t believe him? He showed up in the same role at the last talks of this kind — and the deal failed. 

Anarchists, Activists and ‘Red Line’ Blockades

Hundreds of thousands of protesters were scheduled to flood Paris during the talks. The plan was to “occupy public space with our disobedient bodies,” according to the organizing literature, creating 10 blockades themed around “red lines” that the protestors fear will be breached by a business-friendly Paris agreement.

The Paris authorities have canceled the rallies, however, citing security concerns in the wake of terror attacks. The move sets up a potentially ugly clash between the people and the police. The organizers include Greenpeace, the World Wildlife Fund, and, the group behind the 300,000 person climate change march last year in New York. All have said they accept the security concern — but they refuse to be silenced.

One option is to move the protests to another city. That should be easy given one of the less official organizing ideas: a round of “Climate Games.” The games include an escalating ensemble of street art, digital hacks and real-world demonstrations.

“We will not bend to the politics of fear that stifle liberties in the name of security,” the protesters said in a statement online. “The biggest threat to security, to life in all its forms, is the system that drives the climate disaster. History is never made by those who ask permission.”

Sticking Points

The world’s nations have met for UN climate summits 20 times before and failed to slash emissions. This time is different. More than 150 nations have already submitted plans to cut emissions. But the talks could still devolve into fights and finger pointing, as they did in Copenhagen in 2009. 

The biggest issues involve fairness, blame, and massive financial payoffs. How much more carbon pollution should the U.S. and other rich countries be allowed to spew into the atmosphere? How much money is owed to poorer countries struggling to adapt to a problem they did not create? What about liability for the problem? Should the richer, more carbon-intensive countries pay for damages? 

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And the knottiest challenge of all: dividing up the rest of the world’s “carbon budget.” The budget is the amount of oil, gas, and coal that can be burned without warming the planet to the point of catastrophe. But here’s the problem: The budget is already half-gone, according to the IPCC — and, at current rates, the US, China, and Europe alone will exhaust the rest of the budget in a matter of decades. 

At the same time, the world has at least three times more oil, gas and coal reserves in the ground than can be safely burned. We’re talking about assets worth an estimated $100 trillion, according to Citigroup. So who gets to burn it? India or America? Bangladesh or Britain? And how should the countries and companies that own all that oil, gas, and coal be compensated for money they’ve been counting on? 

With such big questions on the table, many expect the talks to go into overtime. 

Beyond Paris

The Paris talks are destined to fall short of the science. They are, at best, a half measure even in the most optimistic scenario. If you add up all the pledges from participating countries, the world’s fever begins to break and fall. 

That’s tremendously good news. But by mid-century, we’re still on pace to blow past 3.6 degrees of warming: the guardrail set by scientists and ratified by governments as an outer limit of safety. Beyond 3.6 degrees, there is no precedent for modern life as we know it. 

That doesn’t mean we’re fried. We could still curtail emissions enough to avoid the worst. But we’ve waited so long that our transition won’t be easy and it won’t be cheap and we’ll have to do it faster than we ever imagined. For the delegates in Paris, that means striking a deal that includes regular reviews, a ratchet up of the emission cuts over time, and, most contentiously, some sort of penalty if a country flouts the agreement. 

“Everyone is convinced that there will be an agreement in Paris,” French President Francios Hollande told journalists in September. The question is what kind?”