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Nearly 200 Countries Meet In Poland To Participate In Climate Conference


A giant climate meeting has opened in Poland with delegates from close to 200 governments. They're spending the next two weeks figuring out how to slow climate change. As NPR's Christopher Joyce reports, their goal is daunting - to get the entire world to change the way people use energy.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: The most ambitious effort in history to slow global warming got its start in 2015. It was a deal signed in Paris. All nations, rich and poor, agreed to lower their emissions of greenhouse gases. Now, three years later, the signatories are sitting down with United Nations officials to write the rules on how to do that.

If the diplomatic pace has been glacial, the onset of extreme weather has not.


ROB MARCIANO: Hurricane Michael's quick and powerful strike came in with a roar - the most powerful storm to hit the United States in 50 years.

JOYCE: That was Florida. There was fire, too, in places like Australia.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The fire rating danger for parts of central Queensland has now been raised to the highest level in the state's history.

JOYCE: Big hurricanes and fires aren't new. What is new is their rising intensity or frequency, caused by a warming planet. The last two hurricane seasons in the Atlantic Ocean have been more intense than average, for example. Fires in California have set new records.

Scientists say, expect more of that. They delivered a new report to the U.N. back in October.

BRENDA EKWURZEL: And the findings were quite stark.

JOYCE: Brenda Ekwurzel is a climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists. She says the report gives governments very little time to live up to their promises to reduce emissions.

EKWURZEL: A dozen years that will be make or break whether we can achieve the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement - I don't think people really realized how close and how narrow that window is.

JOYCE: Two more pessimistic studies followed from the United Nations and the U.S. government. They confirmed that current efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions are falling far short.

I asked Ekwurzel what is needed to create the political will to act - more science, or monster storms like Hurricane Harvey or the deadly Camp Fire in California?

EKWURZEL: I think it's Harvey. I think it's the Camp Fire. I think people who are in these extreme events are saying, this is like nothing that I've ever experienced in my life. I never heard my grandparents talk about events like this.

JOYCE: But the hurdle is high in Poland. Governments fear the political cost of damaging their economies by eliminating fossil fuels as fast as the scientists say they should. David Victor is a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego.

DAVID VICTOR: These two ships are sailing in opposite directions. In one direction, the science is showing that the problem is more - even more severe than we originally thought. In the other direction, we're learning that the political challenges in making big reductions are more challenging than people had imagined.

JOYCE: Victor noted that emissions have dipped in some places - the U.S. and Europe, for example - but worldwide, they're on the upswing.

VICTOR: There's been a lot of progress kind of in bits and pieces here and there, but it's not progress that adds up to the 50, 60, 80 percent reduction in global emissions that you need to stop global warming.

JOYCE: The Paris Agreement was progress. But back then, the U.S. was pushing governments to commit to a solution. This time around, says Victor, no one seems to be willing to take charge.

VICTOR: All these different countries are trying to figure out what to do about the problem. And there aren't any, really, very clear leaders.

JOYCE: Instead, President Trump says the U.S. should withdraw from the agreement. Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Christopher Joyce is a correspondent on the science desk at NPR. His stories can be heard on all of NPR's news programs, including NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.