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COP21: Global Leaders Tackle Climate Change

Dec. 1, 2015

Delegates from around the world are in Paris to discuss the future of the planet. Government leaders and heads of state from nearly 150 countries opened the UN Conference on Climate Change on Monday with speeches that underlined how serious climate change is.

Some of the speakers were from the world's biggest emitters of greenhouse gases. Others represented countries that are on the receiving end of global warming.

French President Francois Hollande kicked off the UN Conference on Climate Change. He underlined the historic nature of the conference in his opening speech.

"France is hosting 150 heads of state and government, thousands of delegates, coming from all continents. Never, and I mean never, have the stakes been so high at an international meeting because we're talking about the future of the planet."
Francois Hollande / French President

US President Barack Obama called the conference a turning point in efforts to protect the planet.

"I've come here personally, as the leader of the world's largest economy and the second-largest emitter, to say that the United States of America not only recognizes our role in creating this problem; we embrace our responsibility to do something about it."
Barack Obama / US President

Obama proposed a strategy to allow all countries to share the burden of reducing carbon emissions.

"Here in Paris, let's secure an agreement that builds in ambition, where progress paves the way for regularly updated targets-- targets that are not set for each of us, but by each of us, taking into account the differences that each nation is facing. Here in Paris, let's agree to a strong system of transparency that gives each of us the confidence that all of us are meeting our commitments."
Barack Obama / US President

Obama wasn't the only leader to pledge action.

"China has been actively engaged in the global campaign on climate change. We have confidence and resolve to fulfill our commitment."
Xi Jinping / Chinese President

Developing and developed countries have been at odds over climate change. The chairman of the Least Developed Countries group said climate change caused by industrialized nations threatens the lives of people in the developing world.

"Desertification, drought, flooding and other disasters have affected more than 31% of our land. Climate change is a major challenge facing mankind."
Manuel Domingos / Angolan Vice President

Domingos said all countries must work together to build a sustainable low-carbon society.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said his country is ready to help developing nations.

"We cannot overlook the difficulties of those developing countries suffering from the negative impact of climate change. Japan will provide in 2020 approximately 1.3 trillion yen, or 11 billion dollars, of public and private financial assistance."
Shinzo Abe / Japanese Prime Minister

All eyes are now on whether the delegates can strike a historic agreement after 2 weeks of negotiations.


Newsroom Tokyo anchor Sho Beppu reports from Le Bourget, near Paris.

Throughout the day, I could feel the leaders' determination that now is the time to get serious about climate change. But it's easier for them to talk about what needs to be done, than to get them to agree on a common set of solutions.

Meantime, experts say the rise of our planet's average temperature has to be kept within 2 degrees, or else we'll face irreversible consequences.

That's why it is important that every single citizen join this fight against global warming and put more pressure on the leaders. To do this, weather professionals are starting to spring into action.

Weather presenters in various countries are predicting what the weather will be like 35 years from now in 2050 if no measures are taken to curb global warming.

A report from Saudi Arabia predicts temperatures in the Middle East will be over 50 degrees Celsius -- and cyclones will be even more powerful.

A Russian weather forecaster reports that temperatures above 35 degrees are triggering frequent forest fires, and that the Arctic Ocean is ice-free.

Weather forecasters and scientists from the Asia-Pacific region gathered in Tokyo to discuss what can be done to prevent such extreme weather from becoming a reality.

A Malaysian participant said, "If nothing has been done, things will get worse."

Their discussions focused on how to inform the public about the seriousness of global warming, and what consequences can be expected in the future.

A participant from New Zealand said, "Farmers especially are very affected by drought or flooding, and in the future with climate change we can have more problems with flooding and drought and that will affect our economy because we very, very reliant on our farming."

The meeting also allowed participants to discuss the mechanisms of climate change. Among them is the central role played by the oceans.

Experts say the oceans have absorbed more than 90% of the surplus heat. They say this has caused water temperatures to rise, causing the oceans to release an increasing amount of energy back into the atmosphere.

The result has been a surge in cases of "extreme weather," including some of the most powerful typhoons on record.

A participant from Nepal explains the situation in his country. He says that nowadays, Nepal faces the melting of glaciers in the Himalayas, which causes the formation of glacial lakes. Mountain communities face the risk of being flooded if the lakes burst their banks.

Talalelei-Saito Lome from Samoa, an island nation in the South Pacific, tells the participants about his country's desperate situation. He explains that people used to live in the coastal lowlands, but they're now moving inland and to highlands because they're losing their land from the rising sea levels.

Lome is feeling a renewed sense of duty as a weather forecaster to make people realize they could be hit by increasingly severe weather if nothing is done. He is now focusing on producing his own version of the 2050 forecast for Samoa with the hope it will raise awareness both in his country and abroad. He says it is important to not just talk but to take action to let people know the importance of saving the country and the environment.

Rising ocean levels and powerful storms are just a few of the consequences of global warming.

The organizer of the workshop underlines the role of weather forecasters in conveying this information to the public.

"Because they're presenting the weather, which is extremely related and relevant to climate change, and because the science now makes it possible to talk more about longer-term climate projections like seasonal projections, and also because climate change is starting to affect the weather, they can start bringing some of that science into their reporting."
Michael Williams / World Meteorological Organization


Sho Beppu is joined by Michael Williams, Spokesperson of the World Meteorological Organization.

Beppu: What kind of advantage do weather forecasters have in connecting with the public?

Williams: When we talk about climate change, it's a very complicated issue and it's very easy for us to talk about climate change in the abstract, statistical way, like "Global warming is going to be 2 degrees Centigrade." But what does that really mean for you or for me? Weather presenters have the advantage that they're speaking about weather and extreme events-- drought, storms, heatwaves-- that are some of the ways people experience climate change in their lives. They are already on television, they are well-experienced in explaining scientific and meteorological concepts to the general public in a simple way, many of them are well known-- they're popular public figures, even-- so we have found that working with them has been an ideal way for us to encourage bringing climate change information to the public in a way that people understand this is what it means for me, for my community, for my children.

Beppu: We hear often that October is a very hot month historically, even this year. What can you tell us about that?

Williams: First of all, it's December 1st here in Paris and it's 12 degrees Centigrade outside. That's just not the way it's supposed to be. What we can say is that every decade, for the last 3 decades, has been warmer than previous ones. The last decade was the hottest on record; the last 5 years were the hottest on record; 2014 was the hottest year on record; and this year is on track to be even hotter than 2014. So the evidence is clear that something is changing dramatically.

We're seeing strange things happening with storms, certainly with heatwaves -- that's becoming a prominent issue in many parts of the world-- flooding, intense rains. There may be the same amount of rain over the period of the year, but it's all coming in short bursts and causing a lot of flooding. We're seeing changes in nature and how birds come back in the spring and how insects behave and trees and plants behave and we're seeing already a lot of evidence that the climate is starting to change our world.

Beppu: We often talk about how, if action is not taken, temperatures could rise by 4 degrees, but there are some days when it's 16 degrees, and the next day it's 20, and I just take off my sweater. Why is 4 degrees such a big deal?

Williams: If we look back through history, today the average temperature of the planet is between 14 to 15 degrees Centigrade. During the peak of the Ice Ages, it was actually 4-5 degrees Centigrade colder than today, so look at the dramatic difference that made much of the planet 4-5 degrees colder. So if we now imagine 4-5 degrees hotter, that doesn't mean that today, in Tokyo or Paris, it will be 4-5 degrees hotter. It will mean much, much, more than that.

It will mean heatwaves that you've never experienced before, it will mean many more frequent heatwaves, and it will have a big effect on the hydrological cycle and on rain and on water supplies. Some places will become unlivable and farming will fail in many areas. Four degrees is a frightening scenario that is actually impossible to imagine.


World leaders all agree on the need to cooperate on climate change.

But that consensus was born nearly 20 years ago. The main problem since then has been a major rift between developed and developing countries -- a rift that emerged with the first international treaty on greenhouse gas emissions, known as the Kyoto Protocol.

The protocol was unanimously adopted 18 years ago with 192 UN member parties. It was the first framework to reduce greenhouse gases. The United States -- the largest emitter at the time -- took the initiative to achieve the goal. The reduction targets were legally binding, but developing countries were exempt.

A representative from New Zealand said, "Developed countries must agree on binding commitments. We have yet to do so. We are supposing that we will, and that we will be assisted in reaching a decision by the cooperation of our developing country partners."

Officials from developing countries argued that industrialized nations were historically responsible for producing huge amounts of greenhouse gases. A Chinese spokesperson said, "China is not a developed country. It's impossible for us to reduce greenhouse gas emissions."

The United States later changed its stance. It pulled out of the protocol during the Bush administration. The US leader criticized the accord for singling out developed countries.

"We recognize the responsibility to reduce our emissions. We also recognize the other part of the story -- that the rest of the world emits 80% of all greenhouse gases. Many of those emissions come from developing countries."
George W. Bush/ US President

The Kyoto Protocol has not worked out as planned. Carbon dioxide emissions, a main source of greenhouse gases, increased 6 times in past 60 years.

The 2 biggest emitters -- the United States and China -- became the center of attention.

When President Obama took office, the US changed its position. Obama urged his Chinese counterpart to collaborate on a new framework, but China refused to alter its stance.

A change of leadership in China saw a change in attitude.

"We declare that we'll tackle the issue of global warming and set goals on emissions."
Xi Jinping / Chinese President

"Today, I'm proud we can announce a historic agreement. I commend President Xi, his team, and the Chinese government for the commitment they are making to slow, peak, and then reverse the course of China's carbon emissions."
Barack Obama / US President

The Kyoto Protocol will end in 2020.

The objective of the COP 21 Conference will be to get all countries to agree on a legally-binding and universal agreement to control greenhouse gas emissions.


Sho Beppu once again speaks with World Meteorological Organization Spokesperson Michael Williams.

Beppu: We often hear about this principle of common but differentiated responsibility. Of course, every country has different responsibilities, but I sometimes get the impression while covering these conferences that this principle is making parties stick to their original position and making it difficult for them to be flexible. What do you think?

Williams: It is an extremely important principle. It's a matter of fairness. Scientists have determined that we have a budget, a carbon budget, of how much carbon dioxide all countries can emit and still keep to below the 2 degrees Centigrade threshold. We've already emitted about two-thirds of that. So the issue is that developed countries -- Japan, the US, Europe -- have taken up more than their share of the atmosphere's capacity to absorb carbon dioxide. So there's that equity issue. At the same time, the global economy's changing, developing countries are entering the third phase of development, so it's important of course that they also contribute to the solutions.


Now, most countries, including major emitters such as the US, China, and India, have announced their targets to reduce carbon emissions.

But experts point out that these plans are still not enough to keep the average temperature increase below 2 degrees.

We have reported on the links between instability in the Middle East and global warming. It's now clear that climate change is not just an environmental problem, but also a major threat to peace and security across the world.

With the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, there's an even more pressing need to establish a new framework to replace the Kyoto protocol, which ends in 2020.

Throughout my reporting from Paris, I've come to realize how crucial it is to remain rational and well-informed. That's the only way we'll find a viable solution together.

The conference is scheduled to end on December 11th. Working-level talks are now underway, and ministerial meetings will start from Monday.

The French President has stressed his determination to create a new framework by the end of this conference and organizers say they'll extend the talks until a conclusive agreement is reached.