Rapid Arctic Change Adds Pressure to Climate Talks

By Andrea Vittorio and Dean Scott

Sept. 1 — President Barack Obama's historic trip to the rapidly warming Alaskan Arctic could help put pressure on international negotiators to successfully ink a global deal to fight climate change at a year-end summit in Paris.

Urgency has been a theme of the three-day trip: The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world. Obama said it's clear that “climate is changing faster than our efforts to address it”.

With less than three months before the Paris summit begins, “there is such a thing as being too late” on climate change, he said.

“That moment is almost upon us. That’s why we’re here today,” the president told a meeting of policy makers, scientists and businesses in Anchorage on Aug. 31. “That’s what we have to convey to our people—tomorrow, and the next day and the day after that. And that’s what we have to do when we meet in Paris later this year.”

‘Backdrop' for Negotiations 

Negotiators from nearly 200 nations will gather at a United Nations summit later this year to hammer out a climate deal that would for the first time commit both developed and developing countries to curb the greenhouse gas emissions that fuel climate change.

The swift “unraveling” of the Arctic could help inject some much-needed urgency into the climate talks, former State Department official Rafe Pomerance said.

“It creates a sense of urgency, a need to act, a need for the global community to come together,” Pomerance, who served as deputy assistant secretary of state for environment and development during the Clinton administration, told Bloomberg BNA. “It creates a recognition of how serious things are, how much warming we’ve already brought, so to speak.”

Pomerance, who now leads a group of researchers called Arctic21, said “all that helps bring governments together, so it's a backdrop for the negotiations and why they need to succeed.”

The U.S., China, the European Union and other nations representing more than half the world's emissions have already submitted pledges to the UN for addressing their emissions under the global climate deal.

Putting Pressure on Paris 

“This year, in Paris, has to be the year that the world finally reaches an agreement to protect the one planet that we’ve got while we still can,” Obama said at the Anchorage meeting.

In a statement issued afterwards, foreign ministers and other representatives from Arctic and non-Arctic states reaffirmed their “commitment to take urgent action to slow the pace of warming in the Arctic” and their determination to reach a successful outcome at the UN negotiations.

But talks so far have been slow-moving in the eyes of United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and other top UN officials.

Opportunities to Take Stock 

To make sure things are on the right track before Paris, Ban plans to bring together about 40 heads of state Sept. 27 to talk about climate change on the sidelines of the UN's General Assembly in New York, Nick Nuttall, chief spokesman for the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, said on a call with reporters Sept. 1.

Nuttall called the leaders’ meeting a "very important” development to show global support for getting an agreement in Paris.

The Sept. 27 leaders meeting called by Ban is one of the few opportunities for world leaders to come together and take stock of progress—and push for more of it—toward the global climate deal to be negotiated in Paris.

Other opportunities include the next Group of 20 leaders' summit in Istanbul, Turkey, to be held Nov. 15-16, although leaders there are likely to focus on more economic and world security issues than on the Paris climate accord.

Climate finance—how aid can be provided to vulnerable developing nations under any Paris agreement—is likely to be on the table for finance ministers who will convene Oct. 9-11 in Lima, Peru, for World Bank and International Monetary Fund meetings.

Need for ‘Continued Engagement.'

Alden Meyer, the Union of Concerned Scientists’ director of strategy and policy who is in Bonn tracking progress on the text, said Ban’s decision to summon leaders to New York for a September luncheon could be crucial in signaling the need for more ambitious actions on greenhouse gas emissions and more details on long-term climate funding from developed nations.

“It’s an important opportunity for some of the key leaders to get together a year after their last climate summit in New York and really talk about what they can do in Paris to make it a success,” Meyer told Bloomberg BNA. Ban held a similar summit of world leaders at the UN headquarters in September 2014.

“But it can’t be a one-off event—it's got to be continued engagement” by national leaders given the Paris talks open on Nov. 30, Meyer said.

Talks Resume in Bonn 

“For example, here in Bonn, people really took notice of Obama’s reference to the Paris summit during his trip in Alaska, and those kinds of public commitments are going to be important” to sustain momentum for getting an agreement when the Paris talks conclude in December, Meyer said.

“But that is no substitute for leader-to-leader engagement,” he said.

Climate negotiators arrived in Bonn on Aug. 31 for five days of UN talks hoping to whittle down what is still nearly 80 pages of text to a more manageable draft deal.

In addition to the Sept. 27 leaders’ climate meeting called by Ban, negotiators from developed and developing countries also are slated to arrive in New York for the Sept. 29-30 meeting of the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate. That forum brings together climate negotiators from the 16 top-emitting nations as well as the European Union.

To contact the reporters on this story: Andrea Vittorio and Dean Scott in Washington at avittorio@bna.com and dscott@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com