What You Need To Know About The Paris Climate Summit

It’s do-or-die time for climate change efforts as world leaders converge on the French capital.
Mike Hewitt via Getty Images

On Nov. 30, more than 100 world leaders will gather in Paris in what many consider one of the last remaining attempts to squelch the growing scourge of climate change. They'll be joined by many of the planet's leading scientists, who for decades have urged countries to scale back the emission of greenhouse gases to stave off a slew of unprecedented consequences.

The meeting -- the 21st Conference of the Parties, or COP21 -- will feature talks from the leaders of the world's worst polluting countries, namely United States President Barack Obama, Russia's Vladimir Putin, China's Xi Jinping and India's Narendra Modi. Environmentalists hope officials will come away from the summit with a sweeping plan to curb emissions and increase investment in renewable energy without any negative economic impacts, because (good news!) climate action is a sound investment.

The conference comes at a dire moment. The world has shattered record after climate record, with 2014 ranking as the hottest year in recorded history. The planet's glaciers are melting at the fastest rates ever seen. Underwater, coral reefs are suffering from an assault of bleaching, spurred by ever-warmer oceans.

All of these effects have prompted harsh warnings about the potential impact on humanity. Rising seas from melting glaciers could inundate some of the world's largest metropolises. Warmer summers could force the evacuation of certain cities that may see days with a heat index upwards of 170 degrees Fahrenheit.

And yet, there is still time to act.

Those attending the meeting hope to hash out an actionable strategy to limit emissions below a warming threshold that, scientists agree, would ward off the worst of the predicted threats. That level -- 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) over pre-industrial temperatures -- is a contentious number, but the conference reflects growing awareness that climate change is a very real problem.

Obama said he was "optimistic" the world will reach an outcome this time, as past meetings have failed to turn up a policy that pleases everyone.

Several big polluters have demanded nations tackle the burden equally despite some countries, like China and India, contributing far more emissions than others. Those suffering from the brunt of negative effects -- like the low-lying island nation of Kiribati, which is quickly sinking under rising seas -- have in turn blamed the big emitters.

But Obama's optimism seems to reflect a shift in international attention toward the problem. Organizations from the United Nations to the Vatican have come out in favor of an accord, and those nations traditionally antagonistic towards climate action -- such as Russia and Australia -- will be in attendance in Paris.

While Americans remain largely unconcerned about climate change, much of the world is ready to adapt. As the European Union's climate chief said earlier this year, there is "no plan B" if the conference ends in failure.

"I think that this whole climate thing is a very interesting learning ground for humanity," Christiana Figueres, the leader of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, told the New Yorker earlier this year. "Where we are now is that we see that nations are interlinked, inextricably, and that what one does has an impact on the others."

Take a look at the graphic below to get a sense of what's at stake. COP21 will take place from Nov. 30 through Dec. 11.

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