COPENHAGEN--A much-anticipated global meeting of nearly 200 nations--all seeking what has so far been elusive common ground on the issue of climate change--got under way here on Monday with an impassioned airing of what leaders here called the political and moral imperatives at hand.
"The clock has ticked down to zero," said the United Nations' climate chief, Yvo de Boer. "After two years of negotiation, the time has come to deliver."
From now until December 18, delegates will attempt to hammer out some of the most vexing details attending the pursuit of a
Several countries announced new emissions goals in the days leading up to the meeting here, including China, Brazil, the United States, and more recently India and South Africa--though many conference participants have noted that these remain far too low to keep rising temperatures in check over coming decades.
The pledges so far are "not going to get us as far we need to go, to really stay within the two-degree limit," said Koko Warner, an observer with the United Nations University in Bonn, referring to the two-degree Celsius cap on temperature increases that climate scientists recommend.
"We don't want to admit it, because the consequences are so bad," she said
Still, speakers at the opening plenary--which began with a slickly-produced video appeal from children across the world to save them from what looked like an apocalyptic future of deserts and rising seas--aimed to spur negotiators forward.
After several hundred delegates and observers settled in the main conference hall to music from a trumpeter, a harpist and the Danish Girls Choir, Connie Hedegaard, the Danish minister presiding over the conference, highlighted the recent string of emissions commitments.
"Every positive announcement will improve our chances of staying below the two-degrees Celsius target," she said. "But as we all know only too well we are not there yet."
"This goes for financing as well," Hedegaard said, noting that arriving at consensus on that issue "may be an even bigger challenge" than emissions cuts.
Rajendra K. Pachauri, the chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, addressed the delegates and spoke of the urgent need for action, and had pointed remarks for those who "find it difficult to accept" climate change science--particularly after e-mail messages and files allegedly stolen from a British climate research center three weeks ago raised questions about data manipulation among some leading climate scientists.
Pachauri ticked down a list of independent trends that robustly reflect the warming of the global climate. "Internal consistency from multiple lines of evidence strongly supports the work of the scientific community, including the individuals singled out in these e-mail messages," he said.
Both outside and inside the plenary, the mood among negotiators and other participants was one of cautious optimism. Jonathan Pershing, the State Department's special envoy for climate who was representing the United States at the opening plenary, said he saw strong evidence that the conference would prove a critical juncture in efforts to get traction on curbing emissions and helping poor countries limit vulnerability to climate hazards--particularly given the decision by more than 100 leaders, including President Obama, to attend.
He also said he saw no indication that efforts could be blunted by Saudi Arabia and other countries that have raised concerns about climate findings based on the e-mail scandal.
Outside the Bella Center, pressure--and some criticism--was mounting on conference participants to overcome differences and deliver results during the coming days.
An open letter from the environmental group Friends of the Earth condemned what it called "undemocratic practices adopted by the Danish Presidency of convening small and exclusive groups of countries before the Copenhagen meeting"--a reference to the rumored existence of an "alternate" treaty document being readied by some big players in the negotiations, including conference organizers, should efforts to sort out differences on the current text be fruitless.
Other blocs--including China--are rumored to be working on similar alternative documents of their own.
Meanwhile, in what appeared to be an unprecedented action, 56 newspapers around the world published the same editorial calling for "decisive action" in Copenhagen.
"In scientific journals the question is no longer whether humans are to blame, but how little time we have got left to limit the damage," read the editorial, which was spearheaded by Britain's Guardian newspaper. "Yet so far the world's response has been feeble and half-hearted."
Continued inaction, the authors asserted, would ravage the planet and wreak havoc on economies and livelihoods.
"The politicians in Copenhagen have the power to shape history's judgment on this generation: one that saw a challenge and rose to it, or one so stupid that we saw calamity coming but did nothing to avert it," the editorial concluded. "We implore them to make the right choice."
Andrew C. Revkin and James Kanter contributed reporting from Copenhagen.
Entire contents, Copyright © 2009 The New York Times. All rights reserved.