U.N. Climate Change Conference May Be Last Chance to Negotiate Global Agreement on Greenhouse Gas Reduction

U.N. Climate Change Conference May Be Last Chance to Negotiate Global Agreement on Greenhouse Gas Reduction

Rutgers professor whose research on rising sea levels was cited in Obama’s 2015 State of the Union says the time to seal historic deal is now

Ben Horton
Benjamin Horton, professor of marine and coastal sciences
The 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference has gathered 150 heads of state with a single, but lofty objective: negotiate the world’s first universal and binding agreement to quell global warming in 20 years.

The conference – also called the 21th annual Conference of Parties, or COP 21 – began in Paris on Nov. 30, and runs through Dec. 11. After speeches and statements from many world leaders – most of whom say that action is needed to slow or stop climate change – diplomats and technical experts have gotten down to negotiating the details of that action.

Benjamin Horton, professor of marine and coastal sciences in the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences and a member of the Institute of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences, studies changes in sea level over the ages. His research was cited in President Barack Obama’s 2015 State of the Union address.

Rutgers Today asked Horton to explain the importance of the talks.

What makes this U.N. gathering of world powers on climate talks so pivotal?

Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, sea level has risen and the concentrations of greenhouse gases have increased. The COP21 in Paris aims to conduct negotiations among countries to contain and reduce greenhouse gas emissions and combat climate change. COP21 is pivotal because it is the last chance for this process. Negotiators agreed in 2011 that a deal had to be done by the end of 2015. Scientists agree that we must cut emissions now or risk catastrophic changes such as losing most of the Antarctic ice sheet.

What can we expect to result from this conference? What is your great hope for it?

The purpose of COP21 is to reach a new global agreement to limit emissions of greenhouse gases. To be successful there must be an agreement from both developed nations, such as the United States, that are more responsible for much of the 20th century greenhouse gas concentrations, and emerging and developing countries, (including China and India, that significantly increased their emissions in the 21th century.

I am hoping COP21 will recast the urgent nature of action on climate change. The impacts from climate change are expected to intensify in the coming decades. If we don't act now, climate change will rapidly alter the lands and waters we all depend upon for survival, leaving our future generations with a very different world. Science may be able to inform policy at COP21 by forecasting how severe climate change will be. However, when confronting climate change challenges, considerations of fairness, equity and justice must also inform international agreement to combat climate change.

What do you think is the most important thing President Obama said in his opening remarks? Do you agree with the requirements that he said must be in any climate agreement, including an ambitious target that calls for a low-carbon global economy; transparency, and periodic reviews of whether emissions targets need to be adjusted?

President Obama stressed the urgency of action on climate change. He was also fully aware of the difficulties of an agreement on greenhouse gas emissions both in the United States and internationally. COP21 must find an agreement that not only curbs emissions, but also allows countries to continue to grow their economies, and provides assistance to the least developed and those most affected by changing climates. Periodic reviews of emissions targets is warranted, because we are responding to climate-related risks in a changing world, with continuing uncertainty about the severity and timing of climate-change impacts and the effectiveness of adaptation.

Are you concerned the French government's decision to ban protests and the arrest of protesters at the conference will overshadow the news taking place inside?

As nearly 150 global leaders are gathering in Paris, there must be tight security for this critical UN climate meeting. Indeed, an agreement from COP21 that ignores the realities of the world is doomed to fail. This is true for just about all the biggest issues that we confront, from terrorism to energy and climate, criminal justice, health and immigration.

Media contact: Ken Branson, 8480932-0580, cell 908-797-2590, kbranson@ucm.rutgers.edu