Workers prepare the main conference venue for the COP25 Climate summit in Madrid, Spain, Dec. 1, 2019.
Workers prepare the main conference venue for the COP25 Climate summit in Madrid, Spain, Dec. 1, 2019.

MADRID - Representatives of nearly 200 countries begin annual climate talks in Madrid Monday, shadowed by alarming evidence of a deepening climate crisis and the looming exit of the United States from a global pact to fight it.

A pair of grim United Nations reports published in recent days underscore the scope and real-life impact of insufficient climate action — underscored by global protests Friday in the latest show of people power.

“Climate change is becoming real in ways people hadn’t imagined earlier,” said Simon Buckle, climate change head at the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). “Maybe they were thinking the impacts would be a long way in the future. They’re not; they’re here.”

Presided over by Chile, which bowed out of hosting the meeting after social unrest at home, this latest meeting — known by its acronym COP 25 — aims to finalize rules for implementing the 2015 Paris climate pact.

Environmentalists hope it will also set the stage for countries to beef up their greenhouse gas-cutting commitments at next year’s conference in the Scottish city of Glasgow.

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United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres sounded a warning a day before the summit, calling global efforts to fight climate change "utterly inadequate." 

"The point of no return is no longer over the horizon,'' Guterres told reporters. "It is in sight and hurtling toward us."

Among other key conference goals, member states will try to agree on rules for a global carbon market, allowing countries to trade emissions; and finalize details on $100 billion in yearly financing for poorer countries to cope with climate change. Reaching both goals will likely be challenging.

The meeting “must send a strong political signal that we are working toward a new ambition narrative,” Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, Peru’s former environment minister, said. He now heads international climate programs for the wildlife preservation organization WWF.

A fire burns a tract of Amazon jungle as it is cleared by loggers and farmers near Porto Velho, Brazil, Aug. 31, 2019.
FILE - A fire burns a tract of Amazon jungle as it is cleared by loggers and farmers near Porto Velho, Brazil, Aug. 31, 2019.

Grim backdrop

The talks beginning Monday take place after extreme weather patterns and natural disasters this past year, foreshadowing what some environmentalists think is a new normal — from wildfires in Brazil, Australia and the Democratic Republic of Congo to intensified hurricanes, flooding and droughts in many corners of the world.

Host Spain has grappled with both searing droughts and heavy rain this year. Nearby Italy has seen its iconic city of Venice submerged in floodwaters, while Switzerland is mourning its fast-melting glaciers. Just days before the meeting, the European Union’s parliament declared a global “climate and environmental emergency.”

“Today, the science is really clear,” Lucile Dufour, international policy adviser for environmental nongovernmental organization Climate Action Network France, said. “We have a maximum 10 years to fight global warming and all the scientists say we are in a climate and biodiversity crisis.”

Dufour added, however, “The good news is there is raising awareness, especially from young generations that we have to act — and we have all the solutions to act.”

FILE- Protesters gather outside the White House in Washington to protest President Donald Trump's decision to withdraw the Unites States from the Paris climate change accord, June 1, 2017.
FILE- Protesters gather outside the White House in Washington to protest President Donald Trump's decision to withdraw the Unites States from the Paris climate change accord, June 1, 2017.

Less US leverage, more local action

Adding urgency, a U.N. study published last week found heat-trapping greenhouse gases pumped into the atmosphere last year reached a new record.

Another found global temperatures could rise up to 3.9 degrees Celsius by the century’s close — well beyond the 1.5-degree cap countries pledged to try reach under the Paris Agreement. Previous U.N. studies have outlined the devastating impact of a warming planet on oceans, glaciers and forests.

Deforestation has sped up in Brazil’s Amazon region, considered a bulwark against climate change, while Asian countries continue to build new coal plants.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration announced it would pull the United States, the world’s second-biggest greenhouse gas contributor, from the climate pact by next November.

“They’re still at the table this year, but with much less leverage than what otherwise would have been the case,” said David Waskow, global climate initiative director for World Resources Institute, a Washington research organization.

But climate action is increasingly going local, he and others say, supplementing and partially compensating for national shortcomings. In the U.S., Waskow estimated the cities, states and businesses that are taking action on emissions account for roughly two-thirds of the national economy.

FILE - Bundled up against cool temperatures, Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg speaks to several thousand people at a climate strike rally, Oct. 11, 2019, in Denver. The rally was staged in Denver's Civic Center Park.

Hitting home

People have also taken to the streets in record numbers this past year, demanding climate action. Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion are becoming household names, while clean energy use is growing rapidly on the back of plummeting costs.

“We’re seeing increased attention to this crisis,” Waskow, of WRI, said. “People are seeing ways in which hurricanes, floods and droughts are really affecting them. They’re waking up to that and need to see change.”

Environmentalists point to other positive signals. Last month, the European Investment Bank announced it would no longer finance fossil fuel projects by the end of 2021. Meanwhile, new EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced a “Green Deal” plan to achieve net zero carbon emissions regionally by 2050.

To be effective, governments must craft climate policies that focus on broader social well-being, Buckle, of OECD, said.

“We’ve got to stop thinking that this is an environmental problem,” he said. “This is a fundamental problem for our whole way of development.”

So far this year, dozens of countries have promised more ambitious commitments to cutting greenhouse gases. But together, they account for only a small share of global emissions.

“We really need the big players to do their part,” Waskow said. “This is really where the rubber is going to meet the road.”