LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
Today, delegates and heads of state from almost 200 nations arrive in Paris to negotiate a new agreement to curb global warming. The first big meeting took place 18 years ago in Japan. The Kyoto conference produced the first international treaty to slow climate change. But the treaty fell apart, and scientists say the planet is now closer than ever to a climate catastrophe. NPR's Christopher Joyce reports that this time negotiators say they've got a radically new approach to avoid a repeat of Kyoto.
CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: You could say the 1990s was when the world got a little scarier. Scientists said the planet is warming unnaturally and they were pretty sure humans were causing it by burning too much fossil fuels like coal and oil and natural gas that put carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Governments met in 1997 in Kyoto, Japan, to do something about it. Two weeks into the talks, though, it looked hopeless. People thought their economies would tank without energy from fossil fuels. Then Vice President Al Gore flew in to reassure everyone that cutting back on CO2 would not break the bank.
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AL GORE: The imperative here is to do what we promise rather than to promise what we cannot do.
JOYCE: A treaty emerged. It set targets for developed countries to reduce the greenhouse gases that cause warming. Gore reassured the developing world that they would be exempt.
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GORE: We understand that your first priority is to lift your citizens from the poverty so many endure and build strong economies that will assure a better future. This is your right. It will not be denied.
HARALD DOVLAND: I thought we had come a very big step forward.
JOYCE: Harald Dovland represented the Norwegian government in Kyoto.
DOVLAND: We had the first commitment. We had a process on strengthening commitments. It didn't work out.
JOYCE: Why not? Well, these emissions cuts were set to start 10 years later so everyone had time to prepare. But the U.S. never even signed on. The Senate would not approve it. And during that 10 years, China's economy took off. Their greenhouse gas emissions soared. Valli Moosa, a South African delegate at Kyoto, says the treaty was handicapped from the start.
VALLI MOOSA: You actually cannot have a meaningful agreement without China and the United States being part of it.
JOYCE: And many developed countries either didn't live up to their promised emissions cuts or dropped out of the treaty. By 2009, it was clear that Kyoto was not going to slow the planet's fever. World governments met in a mood of desperation in Copenhagen to draft a new treaty. They failed. Rich countries were worried about ruining their economies. And many wanted developing nations to pitch in as well. That set off a global spat. You made this mess, said the developing countries. It's like the sign at the gift shop. You break it, you pay for it. Copenhagen rattled the international climatocracy so much that they radically changed course. So for Paris, here's the thinking. For one thing, says South Africa's Valli Moosa, international bureaucrats just cannot tell the world's biggest economies what to do.
MOOSA: I don't believe that you're going to be able to make through this process a China or a United States do something that it already doesn't want to.
JOYCE: So this time, governments are volunteering to limit emissions. The limits won't be set by international bureaucrats. Moreover, everybody, not just the developed world, has to limit their emissions. And now there's lots of money for developing countries to use to help with climate change. There's an international fund that will have $100 billion in it eventually. The U.S. has promised $3 billion; China, $3.1 billion. French climate negotiator Laurence Tubiana says the message from Paris will be you can get rich and still reduce emissions.
LAURENCE TUBIANA: How much I'm sacrificing for the sake of emission reductions - it's no more. And now from the Chinese to even the Indians are really coming in. It's about low-carbon economy.
JOYCE: So the Paris conference, the climate community wants you to know, will be very different from the diplomatic failures of the past. Valli Moosa, the former climate negotiator who's now a businessman in South Africa, says he hopes that people are still listening.
MOOSA: You know, the eyes just glaze over. Now, even people in the environmental movement actually don't understand the detail of the current negotiations because they just can't - you just can't keep up your energy to follow all of this stuff for so many years.
JOYCE: But he and everyone else in the climate policy world say this problem is way too big to have any simple solution. Christopher Joyce, NPR News.
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