Work in Progress

While tomorrow’s UN Summit on climate change will draw more attention than yesterday’s People’s March, if only because the president will be there, the event is little more than a milepost to a difficult work in progress. At TNR, Rebecca Leber notes that the real moment of truth will come next March:

Among the 120-plus heads of state and lower ranking officials going to the summit, the two countries everyone is watching closely are China and India—the world’s first and third biggest polluters. It’s also possible they will have little new news to report: Neither of India or China’s leaders—President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Narendra Modi—will be attending the summit themselves, sending high-level representatives in their place. It’s not clear yet just what new policies China and India might propose. India has hinted there won’t be much.

UN Climate Chief Christiana Figueres stressed that it is “not critical who delivers the message but what the message is.” But there’s more to be discouraged about then a few no-shows. Several recent comments made by Modi suggest little commitment to global warming, by implying it is a natural phenonemon. “We should also ask is this climate change or have we changed. We have battled against nature. That is why we should live with nature rather than battle it,” Modi said, in a departure from stronger remarks on climate action Indian officials made in 2011.

Still, optimists can point to other signs. The U.S. heads in with additional commitments to fighting global warming, including a formal announcement from President Barack Obama the U.S. is phasing out hydrofluorocarbons in refrigerators and air conditioners, which contribute to global warming. Carbon pricing is gaining momentum, and the World Bank will unveil a list of 230 companies and almost 30 governments that have agreed to set an internal price on carbon that’s high enough to actually lower its investments in emissions. And cities, which account for 70 percent of global emissions, may be taking even more aggressive steps where national leaders are not. New York, Boston, San Francisco, and Stockholm are among the cities pledging to cut pollution by 2050.

So when will we know for sure whether this summit was a success? Not right away, alas. In March, countries are due to voluntarily announce what they are willing to contribute in greenhouse gas cuts at the national level—setting the stage for the Paris negotiations in late 2015. And Figueres, for one, remains optimistic. “All large economies are well into the work” of developing emissions targets and “middle sized economies are also doing their homework,” she said. “I think most countries will come forward in March.”

So it’s important not to overreact–positively or negatively–to what happens at the summit tomorrow.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.