Ask most people what the annual U.N. climate talks are and the likely answer will be: “Huh?” Ask those who do know and the answer may be: “Why should I care?"

The negotiations, called Conference of Parties, are nearly two weeks long and in their 28th iteration in Dubai. Delegates use wonky terms like “NDCs” “1.5 degrees” and “loss and damage,” not exactly conversation starters at parties. Any final decision is non-binding, meaning countries can agree to something and then not follow through. And when tens of thousands of people travel to the event, a lot of greenhouse gas emissions are produced, which is contrary to the entire point of the conference.

So why bother?

Even many climate watchers sometimes ask that question, and there is a growing debate about whether the current process needs major reforms. But viewed with a long lens — and with the proviso that progress is often more of a slow trickle than a dramatic event and impact — there are many reasons that the talks can prove worthwhile.


The push for compliance (in a public forum) is a key part of COP — in the form of the development of “Nationally Determined Contributions,” referred to as NDCs.

These are plans by individual countries to reduce their use of oil, gas and coal, which produce greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change, and lay out how they plan to adapt to impacts of extreme weather events.

The plans are required by all nations that signed on to the 2015 Paris Agreement, arguably the most significant Conference of Parties to date. The plans are public, setting broad targets that industries and individuals in respective countries can see while also providing a chance for other countries, and news organizations, to scrutinize them. Countries are encouraged and expected to update and “raise ambition” in their plans, creating a level of peer pressure for nations to keep promises.


Why hold UN climate talks 28 times? Do they even matter? #ClimateChange #COP28UAE #FossilFuels

That's something that individual entities sometimes have trouble doing.

The Paris agreement established a defining goal that has guided climate discussions ever since: Cut emissions from the burning of fossil fuels to make sure average global temperatures don’t go beyond 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) since preindustrial times, and ideally not over 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit). Currently, temperatures have increased about 1.2 degrees Celsius (2.2 degrees Fahrenheit).

As extreme weather events driven by climate change have increased and intensified, climate scientists have pushed to limit warming to 1.5. These days, just about every discussion about climate change has 1.5 in mind.

For example, that 1.5 guide is at the heart of the Biden administration’s climate goals, which include the Inflation Reduction Act in the United States, the largest climate legislation in U.S. history that is pumping billions of dollars into green energy transition.

It’s also used as the lens by which many decisions are seen. When oil companies announce plans to launch new drilling projects that will lock in oil and gas production for decades, policy makers can and do criticize the plans as not keeping within the 1.5 goal. That doesn’t necessarily stop oil companies, or anybody, from making decisions that go against the goal. Still, it provides a frame of reference, which is powerful.


Deciding how to talk about something can be an important part of getting things done.

Last year’s climate talks, COP27 in Egypt, produced a landmark agreement for rich countries to contribute to a fund to help developing nations adapt to climate change. For decades, environmental activists had argued that a “loss and damage” fund was necessary because rich nations, which industrialized with fossil fuels, were largely responsible for climate change while developing countries were being hit the hardest, as they didn’t have the resources to withstand floods, heat waves, prolonged drought and other manifestations of a warming world.

Early discussions of loss and damage at COPs were always on the fringes, not even on the official agenda. That changed last year, as the topic, and thus the decision, ended up being the centerpiece of the summit.

In a larger sense, today many discussions of climate, from reducing emissions to paying for a transition to green energies like wind and solar, are framed around the idea that rich countries are historically responsible for the current situation and thus have a moral imperative to pay more to confront it.


The glacial pace of discussions, with no binding decisions or ways to enforce agreements, may seem like a formula for failure in a world accustomed to visible, sometimes splashy resolutions.

However, seen over the course of nearly 30 years of summits, the outcomes could be called cautiously optimistic successes. For example, 10 years ago the level of greenhouse gas emissions had the world on track to warm 4 degrees Celsius (7.2 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2100, which scientists say would create devastating extremes.

Today, models have the world warming by 2 to 2.5 degrees Celsius. That is still significantly beyond the 1.5 target and poses threats to humans; tenths of a degree matter a lot when it comes to extremes.

But overall, humanity is on a much better path. While many factors have gone into lowering the curve on emissions—technological advances, environmental laws in many countries, a move toward electric vehicles, among others—U.N. climate negotiations have undoubtedly been a central factor.


Ultimately, COP is the only game in town.

Even if none of the above is convincing, the reality is there is currently no other way for the world to collectively address climate change. Consider how difficult it can be for two people to agree on anything. How about 200 countries?

The Conference of Parties process gives every nation in the world, whether rich or poor, large or small, a seat at the table to discuss how climate change is impacting them and how they believe the world should confront it. They also give a forum to people of all walks of life to exchange ideas, from young environmentalists and Indigenous activists to bankers and leaders of many industries.

The wonky speeches, lots of discussion and disagreements will continue, all with the hope of combatting climate change. That is worth a conversation starter at parties.

Peter Prengaman is director of climate news for The Associated Press. AP climate and environmental coverage receives support from several private foundations. See more about AP’s climate initiative here. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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The trouble with the COP conference approach is its gross inefficiency. While the author's points are valid as far as they go, the COP process could be made significantly more efficient while still achieving these same objectives. It's just that the politicians would not be able to hide their obfuscation behind the guise of inefficiency any longer.
One of the key messages politicians everywhere have not learned is that a zero-carbon future will require greater efficiency from all of us. We can't achieve a zero-carbon future regardless of the decisions made at any level without 'reduction' being a part of the model, and that means a move to greater efficiency, especially as it pertains to our political systems. A model closer to that of the IPCC reporting process would make for greater efficiency, achieve the same objectives, with fewer photo-ops, and a lot less carbon.

Perhaps the IPCC can interject itself into COP and bring some professional science and evidence-based analysis into the mass PR exercise and spectacle of COP.

Regardless of its high- minded goals and the honest principles of many early supporters and organizers of COP, this process is now in dire need of reform before it becomes the largest and most cynical meeting place for promoters of fossil fuel interests on Earth.

A process that accommodates high levels of shaming, anger and celebrity ego, that forces delegates to depend solely on mass air travel, and that allows radically increasing numbers of pro carbon charlatans to intermingle, gain equal media attention and lower expectations is bound to fracture and collapse under its own unnecessary weight and divided interest complexity.

There is far more progress today in addressing the demand side, mainly concerning the lower cost and high growth potential of renewables. The politicians can't keep up and lag behind in policy.

By all means, the federal government should attend COP but be under no illusion that it has been eroded by the same oil company sharks seen on their internal donor lists. But they cannot deny any longer that far more generous direct funding of widespread electrification across the domestic economy is tremendously more effective than attending the world's premier gab session on climate with marginal and totally unenforceable successes.

The developing world needs help to adapt to climate change. Of that there is no doubt. But there is no guarantee that COP will both address the issue adequately or have the power to follow up.

Ye shall know them by their fruit, so the verse says. We can't afford to listen to their words any longer. Know them well by their actions and deeds instead. Direct annual funding of poorer global south nations is probably the best solution along with sending engineering and financial expertise.