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Climate Experts Hopeful Ahead of Paris Summit

WASHINGTON (CN) - The State Department seems optimistic that negotiators at the upcoming Paris climate summit will be able to strike an "ambitious, effective, fair and durable" agreement.

At a press conference Tuesday, Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern refused to even consider the possibility of the talks leading to anything less than a successful agreement.

"The stars are more aligned to reach agreement that I have ever seen happen before," Stern said. "We have a real opportunity."

Other experts on climate-change policy are also bullish on the possibility of the COP21 talks leading to action, even if they don't bring about sweeping international policy changes.

But despite the general sense of optimism, real threats remain both abroad and at home could derail any deal struck in Paris after talks begin Nov. 30.

A group of Republican senators have threatened to withhold U.S. contributions to a key international fund that seeks to help developing countries lessen the blow turning to clean energy sources would have on their economies.

Internationally, there remains debate over how much nations can be trusted to accurately report their emissions and stick to the self-determined targets that are central to the Paris talks.

But in the end the furthering of international commitment to fight climate change might be all that needs to happen for the conference to be deemed a success.

"This is not the end of the process, this is the beginning of the process," said Dr. Raymond Kopp, senior fellow and co-director of the Resources for the Future Center for Energy and Climate Economics.

A Paris deal will likely be a hybrid of a legally and non-legally binding agreement, Stern said. This means it could require nations to report their emissions, but would not force them to abide by the goals they set out in their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, or INDCs.

One hundred seventy countries have put forward INDCs ahead of the Paris talks, Stern said.

This compromise represents a significant change from the "one size fits all" concept of previous international actions on climate change, said Dr. Philip Duffy, president and executive director of the Massachusetts-based Woods Hole Research Center and a former senior policy analyst to the White House.

To Duffy, the INDCs spur progress through international competition without requiring binding agreements that can be politically untenable. He specifically pointed to China's recent commitment to an "ambitious" reduction in emissions as an example, saying the U.S. and China "egg[ed] each other on" to put forward strong emissions goals.

Kopp - who will be attending the second week of the summit - agreed, saying legally binding agreements have not been effective in the past.

"I don't personally see that the legally binding thing buys you anything," Kopp said. "As we saw in Kyoto, when countries don't want to comply with a legally binding agreement they just step out of it."

Nobody, after all, is going to use military force against a nation that breaks step on a climate accord, Kopp added.

While non-legally binding agreements might be just as effective as legally binding ones, Kopp, Duffy and Stern all pointed to the need to be able verify nations' self-reported emissions reductions.

"People are going to be looking for confidence," Stern said at the press conference. "People in the negotiations, people outside the negotiations will be looking for the capacity to have trust and confidence in what countries say they are doing. You can't run the system without that."

This could require setting an internationally consistent measurement system to ensure nations do not cheat on their reporting, Stern said.

Technology could also play a role in a reliable verification process, Duffy said. He pointed to the possibility of measuring emissions from space as a solution to the problem, though such a solution is likely years away.

International enforcement options, which tend to be politically difficult, will not be on the table in Paris, according to Kopp.

There are also questions of how an agreement struck in Paris should balance developing countries' need to grow their economies with the global need to reduce emissions.

Developing countries produce 60 to 65 percent of emissions, Stern said, making any action that doesn't curb their pollution ineffective.

"You can't solve climate change just on the back of the 30 or 35 percent that's represented by developed countries," Stern said. "At the same time, and this is absolutely embedded in our approach to this agreement, you cannot ask countries to act in ways that are going to be inconsistent with their imperatives of growth, development and the eradication of poverty."

To solve this, developed countries have pledged $100 billion in contributions to the Green Climate Fund through both private and public funding. The money in this international fund would go to developing nations so they could invest in clean energy without putting too much pressure on their burgeoning economies.

But the Green Climate Fund has proved to be a sticking point back home in Washington. Republican Sens. John Barrasso of Wyoming and Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma threatened in a letter circulated last week to strike down the Obama administration's efforts to increase contributions to the fund if the Senate is not first allowed to review a deal coming out of Paris.

"You have unilaterally pledged $3 billion in U.S. taxpayer funds to the Green Climate Fund without the consent of Congress," Barrasso and Inhofe wrote to President Barack Obama. "Congress has never authorized funding for the Green Climate Fund. While the Executive Branch and Congress both play an important role in the foreign policy of our nation, Congress ultimately holds the power of the purse."

Negotiators in Paris prefer the deal not go through the Senate's treaty verification process, according to Kopp. But Brandon Rottinghaus, associate professor at the University of Houston Department of Political Science said the negotiators might not have a choice.

The Senate will probably have the chance to comment on the deal, though how formal this comment is could vary depending on how the Paris deal is framed, Rottinghaus said.

Still, Barrasso and Inhofe's threat carries legitimate weight, as the Senate ultimately does "hold the purse strings," Rottinghaus said.

"This is truly the constitutional system at play here as envisioned by the framers," Rottinghaus added.

Whatever hurdles the deal must clear, whether international or domestic, Stern emphasized the importance of the world coming together to strike an accord at Paris and not simply kicking it down the road to solve later. "We can get this done, I think we will get this done and I'm not going to think about the alternative," Stern said.

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