Space & Innovation

UN Climate Pact Moves Closer to Taking Effect

A slew of documents filed on Wednesday pushed the new UN climate treaty closer to taking effect.

As United Nations diplomats gather in New York this week, climate wonks may be feeling like anxious children on a long drive to a beach.

"Are we there yet?"

A slew of documents filed by national representatives on Wednesday thrust the new UN climate treaty closer to taking effect - a "hairbreadth" away, as Maldives foreign minister Mohamed Asim put it in a statement. But it's not quite there yet.

RELATED: Will Climate Change Affect Fall Colors?

During meetings in France in December, nearly 200 countries agreed to take steps to fight global warming under a new pact, such as by protecting forests and replacing coal power generation with cleaner alternatives. But the agreement hasn't actually taken effect yet, because that requires an extra bureaucratic step - one that sometimes takes years to complete.

For the treaty to become law, or "take legal force," at least 55 countries responsible for at least 55 percent of greenhouse gas emissions need to have filed documents known as "instruments of ratification," indicating they're ready to join the pact.

Under pressure from UN chief Ban Ki-moon, Asim and representatives of other nations, 31 countries filed their ratification documents during a ceremony on Wednesday morning. That ceremony coincided with annual UN meetings.

"The remarkable support for this agreement reflects the urgency and magnitude of the challenge," Ki-moon said at the beginning of the proceedings. "Today will take us one step closer to bringing the Paris agreement into force this year."

With the U.S., Brazil and China among the countries that have already submitted their paperwork, Wednesday's ceremony pushed the number that are formally poised to join the agreement over the threshold of 55 - but they collectively release 48 percent of yearly global climate pollution. That means more countries must sign on before the agreement can take force.

RELATED: How Trees Try to Cope With Climate Change

"This is much faster than most people had anticipated," said Michael Gerrard, a professor at Columbia Law School who focuses on environmental law. "It's a sign of the strong international consensus behind the Paris Agreement."

Russia, India and Japan have agreed to join the pact, but they haven't submitted their instruments of ratification. Climate experts this week are watching closely for any Paris pact filings from those countries, "some combination" of which would help get the agreement "over the limit," said Alex Hanafi, an official with the Environmental Defense Fund.

Meanwhile, EU environment ministers will meet Sept. 30 to discuss options for fast-tracking the bloc's entry into the agreement.

"There's a push within the EU to get them to be the ones that help bring this thing into force," Hanafi said. "They don't want to be seen as behind the times."

The Paris agreement formally covers pollution released after 2020. If it takes effect by early October, countries that have formally joined the pact may have more influence than others during meetings in November in crafting rules for how it will be implemented.

RELATED: Antarctic Fossil Mystery Points to Warming Future

And if Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump wins the November election, taking the agreement into legal force before his January inauguration would make it more difficult for him to follow through with his pledge of dumping the agreement - though he would still have options for doing so.

The possibility that a Trump presidency could trounce emerging global cooperation on climate change is worrying leaders, whose nations are being forced to confront the realities of a warming world. Nearly 2°F of warming since the 1800s is worsening the deadly impacts of heat waves, storms and floods. It's also rattling scientists.

Prominent researchers published an open letter on Tuesday, stating they "are certain beyond a reasonable doubt," that "the problem of human-caused climate change is real, serious, and immediate, and that this problem poses significant risks."

In the letter, hundreds of scientists, including Cambridge University professor Stephen Hawking, University of Maryland professor Rita Colwell and Harvard professor emeritus E.O. Wilson denounced Trump and other Republicans who deny the science of climate change.

RELATED: Polar Bears Won't Survive on Birds and Berries

"From studies of changes in temperature and sea level over the last million years, we know that the climate system has tipping points," the scientists wrote. "The political system also has tipping points. Thus it is of great concern that the Republican nominee for President has advocated U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Accord."

Paul Ehrlich, a conservation biology professor at Stanford who signed the letter, said he doubted it would have an impact, given the well-funded efforts underway to "denigrate the people's opinions of science." But he said scientists "must make every single effort" they can to protect human civilization from an "existential risk."

"I've spent almost 60 years studying these issues - that tells me that society ought to at least listen to my opinions as much as Donald Trump's," Ehrlich said. "It's idiotic to focus on the opinions of people who have never so much as looked at any of these problems."

More From Climate Central:

This article originally appeared on Climate Central, all rights reserved.

See Photos: Amazing Shots of Earth

Whakaari, also known as White Island, is an active stratovolcano, situated 30 miles (48 kilometers) from the North Island of New Zealand in the Bay of Plenty. Whakaari is New Zealand's most active volcano, and has been built up by continuous eruptions over the past 150,000 years. The island is approximately 1.2 miles (2 kilometers) in diameter and rises to a height of 1,053 feet (321 meters) above sea level.

via Daily Overview, satellite imagery courtesy of Digital Globe

The Northeast is suffering its worse drought in a decade, according to NASA. A high-pressure ridge has stalled over the Southeast, pushing storms farther north than usual. It's left much of New York and New England with far less rain than usual.

August 2016 satellite photos show a rift on the glacier in Antarctica called Larsen C is much longer than previously thought. The rift could lead to a collapse similar to the one that occurred to the Larsen B ice shelf. "We don't know yet what will happen here," said Ala Khazendar of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory on the NASA Earth Observatory site.

Lombard Street runs from east to west in San Francisco. With eight hairpin turns dispersed over a one-block section in the Russian Hill neighborhood, Lombard is often referred to as "the most crooked street in the world."

via Daily Overview, satellite imagery courtesy of Digital Globe

Glacial melting and flooding occurs every year by the Skafta River in Iceland. As the water travels down towards the North Atlantic Ocean, incredible patterns are created on the hillsides. Rising lava, steam vents, or newly opened hot springs can all cause this rapid ice melt, leading to a sizable release of water that picks up sediment as it flows down from the glaciers.

via Daily Overview, satellite imagery courtesy of Digital Globe

The Daldykan River in Siberia turned red in early September, apparently from pollution.

Sadly, it isn't the first time that the river has turned red. A user on the Russian social media site VK.com posted similar pictures back in 2014.

Credit: Association of Indigenous Peoples of Taimyr, via Facebook

Scientists have discovered an entirely new genus of bacteria living in hydraulic fracking wells, part of a thriving ecosystem of microorganisms that contains at least 31 different species.

Credit: Michael Wilkins, courtesy Ohio State University

A dance group performs on the cliffs in Zhangjiajie, Hunan province, in China.

Credit: China Daily/via REUTERS