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What You Need to Know About the Climate Chance Conference in Paris

They seek a "legally binding and universal agreement" to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, "with the aim of keeping global warming below 2°C." Easy peasy.

United Nation Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon welcomes Barack Obama at the COP21 United Nations Climate Change Conference. Photo via Thierry Orban/Getty Images

On Monday leaders from nearly 150 nations gathered in Paris for COP21, or the Conference of Parties, an annual gathering that seeks to find global solutions to help get a handle on arguably the Biggest Bugaboo of our time, climate change. The conference is set to last just under two weeks, until December 11, and upon its conclusion the 195 countries and 40,000 delegates who made the trek to the French capital hope to have agreed upon something monumental. They have but one real goal: They seek a "legally binding and universal agreement" to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, "with the aim of keeping global warming below 2°C," according to COP21's website.


If the world isn't able to keep the temps from rising above the agreed upon 2 degrees Celsius the consequences could be disastrous. Many scientists project that warming above that target in the future would fundamentally alter our world, and would bring about long droughts, rising oceans, mass migration, and extinctions. It would render many cities on the Persian Gulf uninhabitable.

"Never have the stakes been so high," French President Francoise Hollande said in his speech to the gathered delegates on the first day of COP21. President Obama echoed those sentiments, and along the way quelled Chinese fears that such measures can't be taken without stalling the economy, pointing to economic growth in the United States over the last two years despite no growth in emissions. Chinese President Xi Jinping said that any agreement reached at the conference must account for the differences among the attending nations, saying countries should be allowed to seek their own solutions to cap emissions based on their own interest. China and America, the two largest producers of greenhouse gas, met on Monday at COP21 and vowed to continue to take strong action on climate change, a move which was met with praise in the form of a Tweet from former Vice President Al Gore.

British Prime Minister David Cameron asked the other world leaders amassed in Paris "what would we tell our grandchildren" if, in fact, they fail to agree on a robust climate deal? Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said his country would remain committed to the goals of COP21, and believes new technology will help the world reach them. Perhaps, of the many speeches given on COP21's first day, the one with the highest stakes came from Perry G Christie, prime minister of the Bahamas, who said failure to reach a binding agreement could spell the end of his country in total. As a result, he'd like to see a more aggressive plan, one that would not see the earth's temperature rise more than 1.5 degrees Celsius.

In other climate news out of Paris, Bill Gates is heading up a 20 billion dollar investment, along with 28 other backers, in clean energy. The group, called Mission Innovation, would be a public-private venture, marrying billionaire investors to governments because "the pace of innovation and the scale of transformation and dissemination remain significantly short of what is needed," as they put it in their launch statement. The money will be spent on technologies designed specifically to reduce greenhouse gas.

Reaching an agreement won't be easy, as past negotiations at COP have proven, and sticking to it may prove even harder. The proof there lies in the Kyoto Protocol. Reached at COP3 in 1997, it was designed to lower greenhouse emissions to 5 percent below 1990 levels between 2008 and 2012. But that protocol is a nonbinding one, which ultimately meant it didn't have the teeth to hold countries responsible when they couldn't keep to the goal. Beyond that, several large nations—Canada, India—were exempt from the agreement reached at Kyoto. The binding agreement of COP21 has been something conference organizers have been working toward for 20 years, and one that requires everyone to be on board. It's an important 12 days. Our future may depend on it.

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