This week, I've joined climate negotiators from 190 countries in Warsaw, Poland, as part of a series of annual meetings to set the stage for the 2015 Paris climate conference. Meeting on the heels of Typhoon Haiyan, one of the most powerful storms in recorded history, attendees will be reminded of the devastation happening around the world from extreme weather events — a wake-up call for climate negotiators that the consequences of a warming planet can put people's lives at stake.
There is already ample evidence that humanity isn't acting quickly enough to address climate change, as documented in a recent report by the United Nations. Climate action in the United States, and internationally, is at a critical juncture: Countries meeting in Warsaw need to put nations on a path to a meaningful set of commitments in 2015.
It's important to look ahead to think about what nations need to accomplish now. The first critical element for the Paris meetings focuses on specific commitments to emissions-reduction targets. At the 2009 U.N. Summit on Climate Change in Copenhagen, countries accounting for 80 percent of the world's emissions made specific commitments to cut their greenhouse-gas emissions between 2010 and 2020. These efforts varied in structure, but they all carried the same common theme: Each country committed to curb its own emissions by taking action within its domestic system. The climate conference in Paris will be the next evolution of those commitments — "targets 2.0" — with deeper ambition and new targets for 2025.
Although countries won't agree to those actions in Warsaw, they need to lay the groundwork for them to take place. Unfortunately, Japan and Australia have signaled that they will dramatically weaken their commitments. This is a disappointing step that is being roundly criticized by governments around the world. How countries push back against these moves is an important precedent, as the international system depends on countries' fulfillment of their promises.
The intensity of negotiations will dramatically pick up speed when world leaders gather in New York in September 2014. That conference will give world leaders an opportunity to directly engage, as opposed to relying on surrogates, and put personal reputations on the line to address the dangerous impacts of climate change. Will they be known as the first generation of world leaders to see the clear signs of pending climate destruction, the first to take decisive action? Their legacy and the future of humanity are at stake.
The second key element of the Paris 2015 meeting will focus on the assistance that developed countries will provide to other nations to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and minimize the damage to the world's poorest, and most vulnerable, populations. Developed countries invested more than $10 billion per year in international climate actions since 2010. This is an important down payment that will have a lasting impact on the ground — more clean energy will be deployed as a result, less deforestation will occur and more communities will be prepared to adapt to the destructive forces of a changing climate. But this is only a first step, as countries agreed at the 2009 climate summit in Copenhagen to scale up resources to $100 billion per year for climate-protection investments in developing countries.
Many countries now are intensively focused on how to generate that amount of climate investment from both public and private sources. While this may seem like a lot of money in a global era of constrained budgets, world leaders should see it as an investment that pays huge dividends. With clean energy technologies like wind, solar and energy efficiency growing rapidly across the globe, smart political leaders will double down on job-creating clean-energy businesses, and early action to make their communities less vulnerable to the damages of climate change will pay off down the road, since every dollar invested now will save much more in the future. The talks at Warsaw must signal that countries are serious about meeting this commitment.
While international climate negotiations are essential, meaningful action on climate change can't be focused solely on what negotiators agree to during a single two-week period each year. The toolbox must be bigger than that.
Luckily, there are signs that these other tools are also taking shape. For example, more countries and institutions are committing to phasing out public financing for overseas coal projects. This is welcome news that will free those monetary resources for clean-energy sources. Countries are also intensively focused on reducing "super greenhouse gases", manufactured chemicals used in air conditioners and refrigerators, with Europe poised to adopt new regulations for these gases and the United States taking positive steps in this direction. China, Mexico, small island states and many others are also actively pushing for a phase-down of these gases under the Montreal Protocol. These are just a few examples of the many pieces of international climate action that are advancing parallel to the climate negotiations.
It's easy to get cynical about these negotiations. I've participated in such meetings for years and have seen the frustration directed at their slow pace. At the end of the day, nations' actions speak louder than words. Between now and Paris 2015, countries need to pick up the intensity and come prepared to commit to deeper emissions reductions and more financial investments in supporting developing countries. Nations must not wait until the final hours of the Paris meeting, but act now both at home and internationally. Societies only have to look to the horrific destruction in the Philippines to see what's at stake.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on LiveScience.