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Steps Toward a Response
The debate over climate questions pales next to the fight over what to do, or not do, in a world where fossil fuels still underpin both rich and emerging economies.
With the completion of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change at the Earth Summit in 1992, the world’s nations pledged to avoid dangerously disrupting the climate through the buildup of greenhouse gases, but they never defined how much warming was too much.
Nonetheless, recognizing that the original climate treaty was proving ineffective, all of the world’s industrialized countries except for the United States accepted binding restrictions on their greenhouse gas emissions under the Kyoto Protocol, which was negotiated in Japan in 1997. That accord took effect in 2005 and its gas restrictions expire in 2012. The United States signed the treaty, but it was never submitted for ratification in the face of overwhelming opposition in the Senate because the pact required no steps by China or other fast-growing developing countries.
It took until 2009 for the leaders of the world’s largest economic powers to agree on a dangerous climate threshold: an increase of 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) from the average global temperature recorded just before the Industrial Revolution kicked into gear. (This translates into an increase of 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit above the Earth’s current average temperature, about 59 degrees.)
The Group of 8 industrial powers also agreed in 2009 to a goal of reducing global emissions 50 percent by 2050, with the richest countries leading the way by cutting their emissions 80 percent. But they did not set a baseline from which to measure that reduction, and so far firm interim targets — which many climate scientists say would be more meaningful — have not been defined.
At the same time, fast-growing emerging economic powerhouses, led by China and India, opposed taking on mandatory obligations to curb their emissions. They said they will do what they can to rein in growth in emissions — as long as their economies do not suffer.
In many ways, the debate over global climate policy is a result of a global “climate divide.’' Emissions of carbon dioxide per person range from less than 2 tons per year in India, where 400 million people lack access to electricity, to more than 20 in the United States. The richest countries are also best able to use wealth and technology to insulate themselves from climate hazards, while the poorest, which have done the least to cause the problem, are the most exposed.
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