The Paris climate negotiations, explained

What is the Paris climate conference? Well, you can think of it as a dinner party for 25,000 people and none of them really get along that well and they have to save the world from total climate disaster But will it actually work? To start, let's take a look back the last 25 years of negotiations. In 1992 in Rio de Janeiro the UN created a treaty to stabilize greenhouse gas levels so they wouldn't actually mess with the climate. But the treaty mostly just said that countries should figure out how to actually accomplish that goal using other future treaties. The Kyoto Protocol required industrialized countries to cut their GHG emissions… a little but developing countries including China and India weren't required to curb emissions at all and the US didn't ratify the treaty. So that didn't really work. After 12 years of negotiations dragged on the big dinner party that was supposed to result in a planet saving deal actually went pretty badly.

So last year, in Lima, diplomats agreed on a new approach. Let a country decide for itself how it will fight climate change …but commit to it, dammit. These countries specific pledges are called Intended Nationally Determined Contributions or INDCs. So now we're in Paris where diplomats hope to reach an agreement that centers around countries INDCs. But how can companies accountable to those pledges… and what actually goes into them? There are a bunch of different options on the menu And, the prices vary dramatically. So India leans over to the United States and says "I got 300 million people without electricity" "I think I'm just gonna stick with a bunch of the cheap coal." And the U.S., kinda hypocritically says "No way India, you've got to try the green energy, it is phenomenal." And India says "No, I really think I want the coal.

You used to love it, you look great and I think I should give it a shot." And then China leans over to Indian and deadpans " you should really try the green energy." But if India think it deserves to use cheap and easy coal to speed up its development and lift several millions out of poverty Who is the U.S. or China to say that it shouldn't? And that's just the first course. There are plenty of other courses to be picked through and paid for. How much effort do we put forth preventing climate change by regulating power plants or replacing fossil fuel subsidies with renewable energy subsidies versus adapting to it, by say, building seawalls versus compensating those already screwed by it, by awarding emergency funding to repair damage caused by natural disasters. The more we can mitigate climate change the less we actually have to adapt to it but climate change is already hitting some communities heavier than others.

Furthermore, can we make clean technology easy for developing countries to acquire? And what doesn't even need to be developing country? How do we make sure that countries have the strongest institutions and best information to deal with climate change? And then, as with all dinners the tensest moment arrives. What do we do with the bill? Countries could develop cheaply and sustainably if richer countries were covering a lot of the expense. After Copenhagen richer countries agreed to mobilize a hundred billion dollars annually by 2020 in funding for countering climate change in developing countries. But where exactly will the money come from and how much more will be needed? All these questions are on the table in Paris. So what might actually be achieved? In 2010, world leaders decided that you have to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius or we'd be in for full-scale world felt. The bad news is that there's no way any Paris agreement will achieve that, but the good news is that doesn't mean the world has to end. If we continue things business as usual we would be in for 4.5 degrees of warming, but if countries committed to existing INDCs, that helps us bring that down to about 3 degrees.

Hotter than we want, but better than nothing. And a Paris deal could at least start to figure out how to mobilize that money and technology to make that follow through happen. And the better news is that even if Paris totally flops and everybody's just hurling Brie and baugette at one another, cities and private companies can take action to cut emissions and make a difference. In fact, they are the real key players here, because diplomacy isn't real climate action. How does an treaty matter if no one does what it says. Grist will be in Paris this November and December covering the climate conference. Check in with us then for all the policy news and baugettes you could ever want. Subtitles by the community.