Legislators from more than 50 countries joined officials from the United Nations in Washington on Thursday to lay the groundwork for building momentum ahead of pivotal international climate negotiations in Paris next year.
The Thursday event, hosted by Globe International, is intended to spark climate legislation in nations around the world. Those involved said pushing such legislation will drum up support for — or at least raise the profile of — climate action.
"Nothing can be agreed internationally until enough is agreed nationally," said Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on climate change, who later added, "We can no longer afford to be paralyzed by a politicized debate."
Nations are looking to strike a deal in Paris that would lock in large enough greenhouse gas emissions reductions by 2020 to avoid a 2-degree celsius rise in global temperatures by the end of the century.
"We know the stakes. The planet is warming at an alarming rate. There are no emergency rooms for sick planets. We have to engage in the preventative care that makes it possible to avoid the worst, most catastrophic effects of climate change," Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., said to open the event in the Kennedy Caucus Room on Capitol Hill.
Legislators said nations are making progress. A Globe International study released Thursday said 487 climate laws are on the books in the 66 countries it studied. Those countries represent 88 percent of global emissions, it said.
"Actions on both levels, national and international, is essential," said Todd Stern, the chief U.S. climate negotiator at the State Department.
But some nations are moving in the reverse, said Terry Townshend, director of policy and deputy secretary general with Globe International. He pointed to Australia, which has signaled it will repeal its national carbon tax, and Japan, which has retreated from earlier emissions reductions targets.
Still, Robert Orr, assistant secretary general of the United Nations, said the Paris talks are perfectly timed because of the "mobilization that is forming in all parts of the globe," and he called on legislators to develop the "political foundations" for an agreement. He said he expects "bold announcements" in September at the U.N. climate summit in New York.
"Extreme weather is pounding our planet in every part of the planet, and average citizens are starting to make connections" to climate change, he said.
Markey encouraged those in attendance to push ahead with climate legislation to get the Paris talks off to a running start.
"I know from experience that negotiators follow legislators," Markey said. "The more legislation we can pass, the better the negotiations in Paris will be."
Markey said the United States has followed that model in the past.
The 2009 cap-and-trade bill that passed the House but foundered in the Senate was in many ways a prelude to the 2009 Copenhagen climate talks. While there, President Obama committed to slashing U.S. greenhouse gas emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020.
The cap-and-trade effort, spearheaded by Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., and Markey when he was in the House, was created in a different political landscape. Since its collapse, there has been scarce chance of passing a similar bill through a House controlled by Republicans who are skeptical of or deny the human impact on climate change. A Senate that counts a sizable bloc of centrist Democrats also has proven a roadblock.
The divided Congress has forced Obama to virtually go it alone on climate change, as he's pushed through a series of new and stricter regulations through executive action.
"Most action in Congress right now is unfortunately not in the cards," said Stern, who added debate on the issue is "polarized."
Obama also has pledged to take a more active role internationally -- he has described his domestic climate agenda as a way to leverage other big polluters, such as China and India, ahead of the Paris talks.
"[I]f we are at the table in that conversation with some credibility, then it gives us the opportunity to challenge and engage the Chinese and the Indians, as long as we take into account the fact that they've still got, between the two of them, over a billion people in dire poverty," Obama said in a January interview with the New Yorker.
Those nations have presented obstacles in previous climate talks. Both have said committing to greenhouse gas emissions cuts would stunt their economies, keeping millions in poverty. And without India and China on board, congressional Republicans have been loathe to sign onto international climate agreements, fearing that U.S. companies would be at a competitive disadvantage.
But China has taken unilateral action in recent years to curb its emissions and has recently agreed to several bilateral climate deals with the U.S.
"There is much, much more that we can do as we mobilize, commit and produce results both nationally and internationally," he said.