Everything You Were Too Embarrassed To Ask About The Climate Talks In Paris

A two-week United Nations climate summit, where world leaders will discuss how to curb global emissions, starts today in Paris. Here's what you need to know.

What's actually going down at these U.N. climate talks?

This is the 21st meeting of the 196 countries that have signed on to a 1992 United Nations environmental treaty pledging to not tip the world's climate into danger by emitting too many greenhouse gasses.

World leaders and negotiators from rich countries are going to spend a lot of time pledging to cut their own emissions, arranging a genteel way to bribe poor countries to keep them from juicing their emissions, and coming up with a way to check that everyone, rich and poor, is actually doing what they promise.

The meeting is also the Grand Bazaar of networking for environmentalists worldwide and so a lot of the side action at the conference will be these folks discussing strategy face-to-face, and drinking French wine, while the national negotiators debate green energy loan criteria.

What's the point?

The goal is to produce the framework of an agreement that will stabilize greenhouse gas emissions near, or below, a level that is considered dangerous by a 1992 U.N. treaty. Basically, we're setting a ceiling of how much warming of the Earth we will tolerate in the decades to come.

How are these talks different from all the other ones?

We can actually expect a meaningful agreement on reducing future greenhouse emissions to come out of this meeting, which is a different — and better — outcome than past climate meetings. The reason is that the U.S. and China (the world's top two polluters) have agreed to do something about climate change. The question is how effective and how credible is the way the eventual agreement promises to achieve those reductions.

The agreement will include significant emission cut pledges from major emitters — notably China, the U.S., Europe, Japan, and India. Still, these cuts aren't likely to keep warming below the 2 degree Celsius "dangerous" level set in the 1992 treaty. We know this because the major emitters have already stated their pledges, and a U.N. analysis out last month toted them up as not good enough, but a good start.

There will also likely be an agreement to provide funds to developing countries to help them develop clean energy and limit emissions — the question is how much.

All of this sounds iffy. But a lot more groundwork has been done compared to the 2009 Copenhagen conference, which makes people confident about some kind of agreement emerging.

What will happen after the talks, when everyone goes back home?

The reduction pledges have already been made. So for most people, the effects won't be noticeable, aside from easing some of the anxiety that thoughtful ones might feel about climate change continuing unchecked.

One of the strengths of the current process appears to be that every country will be free to make good on its promises in its own way, so the effects will vary from place to place.

Overall you would expect the use of coal and wood to decline worldwide as an energy source, if the treaty is effective, while large investments in green energy infrastructure will pick up. In places dependent on traditional fossil fuels, this may mean job losses and higher power rates, to some extent. In other places, it will mean more windmills or solar panels on roofs and more people hired to put them in place. In other places it will mean something else, more trees planted or forests kept intact, higher fuel standards, or a move toward natural gas heating.

A truly effective treaty will spur large investments in low-carbon power plants worldwide and a clear move away from fossil fuels in the next three decades. That might be too much to hope for from an agreement of 196 nations now but it should be a nudge in that direction at the very least.

Are you saying everything will be fine once the agreement's set?

No. Even with the current pledges, the Arctic might see ice-free summers by 2070, and farm output worldwide would be cut by 25% due to warming.

For the impoverished, a successful agreement would mean their lives won't be greatly worsened by the dangerous climate change that's almost certain without some reduction in emissions.

There will also be endless work for pundits opining on the agreement, too, so prepare yourself. None of them will admit they don't have a clue if it really will work or not, because only the years ahead will reveal whether the nations will stick to their promises.

Skip to footer