Every year or so, we hear about climate conferences in the news. They are usually in exotic places, such as Rio de Jeneiro, and they promise much but deliver little, since the parties at the conference rarely come to substantive agreements.
What the news coverage rarely explains is who, exactly, is conferring at these conferences, what their authority is, or who called the conference. For those not already in the know, these events usually come as a surprise. So, as often happens when I find I am not in the know, I looked the thing up. Here is what I found.
The conferences we hear about today are the latest examples of a process that dates back to the late 1970s, when it first became clear that humans were changing the climate. The First World Climate Conference, in 1979, was called by several UN groups, such as the World Meteorological Organization, acting together following a series of conferences on other environmental and economic topics that had each made clear that climate was a major issue. Out of that first meeting came several new organizations charged with researching or otherwise addressing climate.
There have been three World Climate Conferences so far (the other two were both in Geneva, in 1990 and 2009, respectively), each was called to order by a similar mechanism and produced similar results–more organizations with more acronyms. I will not list all of them. The important points here are that these conferences are cooperative ventures among multiple UN agencies and that they do not draft policy. Also–and for our purposes, this is the biggie–the Second World Climate Conference called for an international treaty to do something about climate change.
The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or UNFCCC, is the treaty drafted as a result of that call (by yet another UN group) and presented for signature at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 (two other environmental treaties were signed at the same time, one on desertification and the other on biodiversity. The three are referred to as “Rio Conventions”). UNFCCC also became the name of the organization formed by the signatory nations in order to enact the treaty. The treaty went into effect in 1994, and the organization created the Kyoto Protocol as a legally binding extension of the UNFCCC, in 1997. The United States is one of the few countries that is a party to UNFCCC but not to the Kyoto Protocol, which the Senate refused to ratify. The UNFCCC has created several other international agreements and plans as well.
The UNFCCC is the body that has held most of the climate conferences we’ve heard about in the news in recent years. Its business is to create, support, and enforce international agreements to lower greenhouse gas emissions and to otherwise deal with the issue in concrete, practical ways. The Secretariat of the UNFCCC maintains a busy annual schedule of meetings and workshops of its various committees. Most of of these meetings are in Bonn, Germany, and most receive little media attention in the US. There is also an annual Conference of the Parties, a group of meetings of delegates from all 195 signatory nations. These are what we hear about in the news because they sometimes do result in new international agreements. Some years there are additional climate change conferences as well.
The schedule for upcoming UNFCCC events is available online.
Of course, there has not been a new legally binding treaty from one of these meetings in a long time because a minority of nations, notably the US, refuse to sign on. This year’s COP in December, in Lima, Peru, is being organized as a preliminary discussion for next year’s COP in Paris, France. The hope is that the Paris meeting will finally result in a new, effectively binding agreement, in part because of President Obama’s plan to avoid the standard treaty process (he is hardly breaking new ground by doing this; many major international agreements made over the past twenty years are not, technically, treaties).
The general thinking is that Paris, 2015 has to work. One way or another, the world must commit to an emissions reduction plan, because we are running out of time. This is why the Lima conference is being billed as a preliminary conversation, and why UN Secretary General has called a Climate Summit of world leaders (as opposed to delegates) in New York for next week. This is also why there are massive demonstrations planned for the weekend of the Summit, and why you should attend them if at all possible. If enough people show world leaders that addressing climate change is politically viable now, we have a chance.
So, to summarize, most of the climate conferences we hear about in the news are COP meetings of the UNFCCC, or other meetings called in conjunction with them. There are occasional exceptions every few years.
An important exception to be aware of is the International Conference on Climate Change, which is organized and hosted by the Heartland Institute, a Chicago-based think think tank whose mission is to “discover, develop, and promote free-market solutions to social and economic problems.” The group is deeply and persistently hostile to environmental regulation and is very active in encouraging climate change denial. Much of their funding comes from oil companies and other donors with a vested interest in climate change denial.
The annual International Conference on Climate Change is not only different in origin and philosophy from the other conferences and meetings discussed here, it is different in structure. While the other events are organized around creating and enacting international agreements and supporting research and other practical programs, the Heartland event is essentially a public speaker event marketed to a non-expert audience. There is nothing wrong with speaker event, of course, but is a very different kind of thing than a conference where experts and leaders go to discuss issues and make plans with each other.
The Heartland event is generally and properly ignored by the media, but its efforts to bill itself as the equal of other climate conferences creates potential confusion. Let’s not get confused.