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Unit 12: Earth's Changing Climate // Section 9: Major Laws and Treaties


Science plays a central role in international negotiations to address global climate change. In 1988, the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Programme established the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an organization composed of official government representatives that is charged with assessing scientific, technical, and socio-economic information relevant to understanding climate change risks, potential impacts, and mitigation and adaptation options (footnote 20). The IPCC meets regularly to review and assess current scientific literature and issues "assessment reports" at approximately five-year intervals (most recently in 2007). IPCC reports are adopted by consensus and represent a broad cross-section of opinion from many nations and disciplines regarding current understanding of global climate change science. The panel's recommendations are not binding on governments, but its models and estimates are important starting points for international climate change negotiations.

The most broadly-supported international agreement on climate change, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC), was opened for signature in 1992 and entered into force in 1994 (footnote 21). To date it has been ratified by 189 countries, including the United States. FCCC signatories pledge to work toward stabilizing atmospheric GHG concentrations "at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system," but the Convention does not define that level. As a result, it has not been a significant curb on GHG emissions, although it creates a system for nations to report emissions and share other relevant information and for developed countries to provide financial and technical support for climate change initiatives to developing countries.

Recognizing that the FCCC commitments were not sufficient to prevent serious climate change, governments negotiated the Kyoto Protocol, which commits industrialized countries to binding GHG emission reductions of at least 5 percent below their 1990 levels by the period of 2008–2012 (footnote 22). The Protocol focuses on developed countries in reflection of the fact that they are the source of most GHGs emitted to date, although it allows developed countries to fulfill their reduction commitments partially through projects to reduce or avoid GHG reductions in developing countries.

The Kyoto Protocol entered into force in 2005 and has been ratified to date by 163 countries, representing 61.6 percent of developed countries' GHG emissions. The United States signed the Protocol but has not ratified it. President George W. Bush argued that the economic impact of its assigned reductions (7 percent below 1990 levels) would be too severe and instead emphasized voluntary domestic reduction commitments.

For all of the controversy that it has generated, the Kyoto Protocol alone will not reduce the threat of major climate change because it covers only 40 percent of global GHG emissions without U.S. participation, does not require emission reductions from rapidly developing countries, like India and China, that are major fossil fuel consumers, and only covers emission through the year 2012. No single option has emerged yet as a follow-on, but analysts widely agree that the next phase of global action against climate change will have to take a longer-term approach, address the costs of reducing GHG emissions, and find ways to help developing countries reap the benefits of economic growth on a lower-carbon pathway than that which industrialized countries followed over the past 150 years. Continually improving our scientific understanding of climate change and its impacts will help nations to identify options for action.

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