By Michaela Marincic ’16

Leaders from 195 countries convened in Paris on Monday for a week of negotiations to develop a global action plan on climate change. Marked by peaceful environmental demonstrations worldwide, the Paris climate conference (COP21) represents true optimism that, maybe, just maybe, we can get it right this time. However, these talks come with a long history of less successful attempts as well as an (organic, non-GMO) alphabet soup of acronyms, so here are the basics to help guide you through the news coverage pouring in from the City of Lights.

Things To Know as COP21 Opens

COP21: “Conference of Parties 21.” That is, 195 countries that have agreed to meet yearly to discuss climate change, unless they decide they don’t want to. The United States is one of them. Funny, because the U.S. didn’t ratify the Kyoto Protocol three years later (see below).

UNFCCC: “United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.” International agreement to prevent climate change. In 1992. That’s 23 years ago in case you haven’t had to take a math class since high school.

Kyoto Protocol: “Kyoto Protocol.” International treaty of 1995 binding countries to climate change-preventing goals. The U.S. did not sign the treaty; Bill Clinton never passed it along to Congress because he knew they wouldn’t agree to it.

Clinton may still be alive, but it seems he has already been reincarnated into Barack Obama, whose House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said, “We have the authority to debate and decide where we spend our money, and I don’t think that’s the best use of our money,” referring to climate change action according to the Los Angeles Times (“House doesn’t have to fund climate deal, majority leader says”). In fact, Congress shows so much opposition to strong climate action that the international delegates to COP21 won’t even try to write a treaty because they know it wouldn’t survive U.S. Congress. Without the U.S., the world’s second largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, any treaty would be next to worthless. Instead, each country has crafted an INDC (see below).

INDC: “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions.” Each country’s individual plan for mitigating climate change. Also known as, “We’ve tried for over 20 years to agree on how to handle this, but obviously that’s not working, so we’ll each do our own thing and hold each other accountable.” Check out this interactive map to find a specific country’s INDC: http://cait.wri.org/indc/#/map.

So why is this a big deal?

For once, hope is in the air; political and economic factors seem ripe for change. Yet the COP has already convened 20 times in just over two decades with little to no international agreement, so why should this year be different? First of all, China and the U.S. have already agreed to parallel emissions reductions, and Obama has found some success by having the EPA officially adopt the Clean Power Plan (though it faces legal challenges). With the top two polluters in the world agreeing to cut back, other countries can begin to feel safer enacting climate change policy without worrying as much whether it will hurt their competitive edge on the global market. What’s more, the prices for producing energy from renewable sources have plummeted since their initiation in the previous century, and many countries and communities have begun to install renewables with success. As 2015 shapes up to be the hottest year on record, pressure to change current industrial practices mounts. With an auspicious political and economic situation developing in the world, perhaps global leaders can rally effectively to the cause as COP21 unfolds.