The administration acknowledged that the outcome they are fighting for "is not guaranteed."
In a briefing with reporters on Wednesday, a senior administration official detailed the long history leading up to the talks, which are considered a key component of President Barack Obama’s legacy on climate change.
U.S. and other leaders agreed to set the 2-degree Celsius (3.6-degree Fahrenheit) global temperature limit at the 2009 Copenhagen meeting, a pledge that G7 leaders reaffirmed earlier this year. But there's evidence that even 2 degrees would be dangerous for many parts of the world, and that the emission-reduction commitments countries have put forward won’t sufficient to meet the current target -- and could see global temperatures of 2.7 to 3 degrees.
U.S. negotiators have, at times, also downplayed the goal, arguing that insistence on meeting it could serve as an impediment to reaching a workable commitment from all countries.
Negotiators are meeting in Bonn, Germany, this week to hash out a draft agreement. This is the last chance to work out details before the roughly 190 countries meet in the French capital on Nov. 30 in hopes of approving a final deal.
Now, the administration is working harder to steer countries toward successive targets beyond the ones they have made aimed at reducing a percentage of their greenhouse gas emissions post 2020.
In the meeting on Wednesday, the official said that America’s ability to ensure global warming is minimized will “hinge on” the administration's ability to pressure global leaders to commit to ambitious future targets.
The administration official admitted again on Wednesday that targets set by those countries “alone are not sufficient” to prevent hitting the 2-degree Celsius mark.
Which is why “if we reach an agreement in Paris, that agreement is based on a collective commitment by countries to use this process of setting bottom-up targets, subjecting them to transparent review, and committing to updating them over time,” the administration official said.
Special envoy on climate change for the State Department, Todd Stern, put it another way during a recent testimony before a Senate committee.
"We have pushed for the idea of successive rounds of targets, coupled with longer-term goals for greater ambition," Stern said of future efforts to mitigate climate change.
It comes down to each country making a political vow that it will increase the strength of its climate change policies in order to decarbonize the global economy and slow the global temperature growth rate as much as possible.
That requirement, the official said, will be “important.”
The 2009 UN framework climate change meeting in Copenhagen was widely anticipated to yield a breakthrough climate deal, one that, for the first time, included both the United States and major developing nations like China and India. But those talks nearly fell apart, and ultimately only brought about a weak political agreement. The road from Copenhagen to Paris has been slow-going, with each year bringing only marginal progress toward a meaningful and legally-binding international agreement.
Obama has said that while the targets individual countries have offered so far aren't strong enough to avoid the 2-degrees warming, he believes they are at a good starting point that leaders can build on in the future.
"[T]he science keeps on telling us we're just not acting fast enough," he told Rolling Stone in an interview published last month. "My attitude, though, is that if we get the structure right, then we can turn the dials as there's additional public education, not just in the United States but across the world, and people feel a greater urgency about it and there's more political will to act."
Earlier this week, in an effort to refocus energies on the Paris talks, Obama hosted a climate change roundtable with business leaders, and the White House unveiled new corporate commitments toward backing a Paris deal.
So far, 152 countries representing over 85 percent of global emissions have submitted official commitments to the United Nations.
Climate change was also a key topic during Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit to Washington last month. Obama and Xi pledged to work together to secure a binding climate change agreement.
And being able to confidently set loftier targets for the future that will hold up even after Obama's term ends, the official said, is all “predicated on a strong outcome in Paris.”
"And that outcome is not guaranteed,” the official added.
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