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We're Still Not Even Close to Saving the Planet After the Largest Climate Summit Ever

More than 120 heads of state came together at the UN headquarters in NYC Tuesday, but most fell short of the bold pledges and tangible vows we desperately need.

by Kim Wall and Beenish Ahmed
Sep 24 2014, 4:30pm

British Prime Minister David Cameron addressing delegates at the UN Climate Change Summit in New York. Photo via Flickr user Number 10

As more than 120 world leaders came together in New York City for the largest climate summit in history on Tuesday, most fell short of the sort of "bold pledges" United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon called for even as they expressed vague support for the cause. While the summit was never expected to produce actual treaties or binding agreements, global elites now have just 15 months to get their acts together ahead of next year's follow-up in Paris. If they don't, climate change experts generally seem to agree that we're all supremely screwed.

The summit opened with a poem from Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner from the Marshall Islands—a chain of atolls (ring-shaped reefs) which may be soon be swallowed up by the sea. If carbon emissions are not curbed, scientists predict that temperatures could rise up to 9.7 degrees Fahrenheit in the next century, causing polar ice caps to melt and ocean levels to rise, potentially swallowing up atolls like the Marshall Islands. Jetnil-Kijiner laid bare the stakes, and while world leaders concurred about the gravity of the situation, few used their speeches to respond with new, tangible action plans.

"We are the first generation to feel the impacts of climate change and the last generation that can do anything about it," President Barack Obama said in a statement that exceeded the allocated four minutes but still seemed awfully brief for such a massive problem. Referencing China, he added, "As the two largest economies and emitters in the world, we have a special responsibility to lead. That's what big nations have to do." Besides promising a sort of knowledge-sharing initiative to bounce climate change solutions back and forth with developing countries, Obama made no new commitments, but vowed to outline an agenda in the first part of next year—conveniently after mid-term elections take place in November.

Some officials did make concrete promises. The United Kingdom announced it would cut subsidies for fossil fuels, Peru said it will better regulate deforestation, and Germany that it will not support any new coal plants. The representatives of Congo and Uganda promised to restore 30 million hectares of damaged forests by 2020, Japan and France expressed desire to become low-carbon role models, and Georgia said it will become a "hydropower giant." Northern Europe emboldened its already progressive stance towards climate change with several Scandinavian countries claiming that they will become entirely fossil fuel-free by mid-century. The European Union in general, already quite successful at cutting carbon, promised to reduce emissions by 80 to 95 percent within the same timeframe. Additionally, more than 30 countries set a 2030 deadline to completely eliminate deforestation—a goal the UN says will have the same effect as taking every car in the world off the road.

But these kinds of actionable pledges were in large part absent from the world's three biggest polluters: the US, China, and India. Other pivotal carbon players such as Russia, Australia, Canada and UAE didn't even bother to send high-level delegations. Most glaringly, the heads of state from China and India—the world's two most populous countries—were too cool for the party.

Of that group, Beijing made the most sweeping shift, with its emissary promising for the first time to work to mitigate the effects of climate change. Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli said that China would reduce its carbon emissions by 45 percent from 2005 levels.

"They're starting to realize that they cannot grow first and clean up later," EU Commissioner for Climate Action Connie Hedegaard told VICE at the Summit. "Their thinking has moved over the last five years."

Prakash Javadekar, India's minister of environment, forests and climate change, said his country would cut emissions by up to a quarter over 2005 levels by 2020. Encouraging as this might seem, it's the same figure that India proclaimed at the RIO+20 climate conference in 2009. While he also announced a plan to create 100 "smart cities," Javadekar provided no real details.

Nowadays, climate skepticism has mercifully been driven (mostly) to the fringes of discussions of global warming, but collective action on the issue may not happen until the US shoulders responsibility and announces an actual strategy.

"Where's the US plan?" Jeffrey Sachs, economist and special advisor to Ban Ki-Moon on sustainable development, wondered in an interview at the summit. "It doesn't exist. With all the speeches President Obama may give about the commitment, where is the US pathway to deep de-carbonization by 2050? It doesn't exist—they've never written it down."

Without the US, other powers like China and India—who both happen to be among the world's most climate-vulnerable nations—will be reluctant to act. That's a sentiment they've expressed ever since the fiasco at the last major summit in Copenhagen in 2009. According to Sachs, everyone wants to fix the problem, but no one wants to do more than others. This means fundamentally changing the world's energy systems, moving to a near-zero carbon economy in the next few decades, and outlawing the attitude of impunity that still prevails among multinational corporations.

And time is almost up.

"We all have to decide we're going bold together—and we're not there by any means," Sachs told VICE. "Paris is really our last chance to get this right." Still, he held on to at least a hint of optimism. "I think there's a good chance for an agreement next year," he said, "But whether that is a real agreement or a photo op—that remains to be seen."

So there's still no international framework to save the planet from climate change apocalypse. Since the Copenhagen shitshow, the world has only become hotter and seen more extreme weather. This sense of urgency was obvious on the streets of NYC Sunday, when more than 310,000 people gathered (on the opposite side of Manhattan) to demand aggressive moves from political leaders in what has been deemed the largest protest in decades.

As it often goes in politics, actions speak a lot louder than words; judging by the speeches alone, the world's key policymakers still have commitment issues. Indian and Chinese prime ministers Xi Jiping and Narendra Modi were MIA, and while President Obama made his speech, it was overshadowed in media coverage by the beginning of American air raids on Syria the same morning.

Overall, the rhetorical hijinks were stronger than at Copenhagen five years ago: French President François Hollande compared climate risks to war, while Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro—in fitting anticapitalist fashion—quipped that " you cannot eat money." In the opening remarks, actor Leonardo Dicaprio—who was recently appointed UN Messenger of Peace—said that if leaders didn't act now, they'd be vilified by history and urged them to do something right away: "I pretend for a living, but you do not," he said.

Even as the tone was more grave than ever, the ultimate obstacle for the international coalition will be to reach and enforce a collective agreement.

"Countries will do something," Scott Barrett, a Columbia professor specializing in resource economics and climate change, told VICE. "They have an incentive to do something. But they don't have a strong enough incentive to do what it will take to stabilize concentrations. Countries have been making pledges on climate for 25 years. What's new?"

When asked whether global policymakers are taking the climate threat seriously enough, Hedegaard, the EU climate commissioner, was cautious.

"I believe that today, they are taking [the] planet extremely seriously. The challenge is, will they also do that tomorrow and next week?" she asked, while questioning whether such commitments will last until Paris next year. "Everybody can say nice things on such a sunny day in New York, but the real test will be what will be the contributions from all of the countries next year?"

Kim Wall and Beenish Ahmed reported this story with support from the UN Foundation. Follow Kim and Beenish on Twitter.