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The debate over the aftermath of Copenhagen

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay, in Washington, DC. In Copenhagen, the conference wound up. Leaders are leaving town. President Obama left (ironically enough) early due to the weather, but not only due to weather: the conference has more or less broken down. And to learn more about it, we’re now joined by Kurt Davies. He’s the research director for Greenpeace USA. And Adele Morris. She’s a fellow and policy director, Climate and Energy Economics Project, at the Brookings Institute. Adele, today in Copenhagen, Greenpeace called the Copenhagen meeting a climate-change sham, and a lot of fingers are pointing at the United States, that if the United States doesn’t make a real commitment, this paralysis can’t be broken. What do you make of that assessment?

ADELE MORRIS, POLICY DIR. CLIMATE CHANGE AND ENERGY ECON., BROOKINGS INST.: Well, I think the American delegation is doing exactly what it needed to do, which is to stay within the confines of its existing authority. We’re waiting on Congress to take action, and until Congress does that, there’s only a certain amount the Obama administration can promise. For example, if we set a specific target in Copenhagen and Congress doesn’t approve legislation to meet that target, we’re just making promises they can’t keep.

JAY: What do you make of that?

KURT DAVIES, RESEARCH DIRECTOR, GREENPEACE USA: Well, this is the problem. All year the president has waited for Congress to set the bar, and who’s setting the bar for Congress but corporate lobbyists—the corporate interests that got in there and helped write the bill. The only reason the bill passed the House was because certain corporations, certain corporate interests let it happen. If it had been too strong, they would not have let it happen. They have plenty of money and plenty of power to exert that. So Obama failed to lead, in our perception, by not telling the Congress exactly what the hurdle was, and then making them do it. And it’s similar to other issues.

JAY: Adele, what do you make of that? President Obama has to spend some political capital here. He doesn’t really seem to be sticking his neck out on it.

MORRIS: Well, I think he has a pretty ambitious agenda for his administration. And we all know the bruising battle that’s been going on on health-care reform. We’re likely to see more issues on the financial-market reform, and climate change coming after that. I think there’s an understandable reluctance to stick his neck out on everything. So he has to make those calculations. And at the same time, I’m not so sure President Obama has full control over what Congress is going to be able to accomplish on this issue. So he needs to make that cost-benefit analysis of how he uses that capital, and I think that’s what we’ve seen.

JAY: So what do you make of that?

DAVIES: Well, I think that’s true. And, you know, stepping back and looking optimistically, we finally have a president who can speak about this issue and knows it. It’s clear from his speech today that he has a deep understanding of the issues at hand, of the challenges that we face in dealing with this issue that’s been called the most difficult issue—far more difficult than arms control—ever attempted by humanity. It’s monumental. And he said—also I agree—that it’s difficult within countries to solve this. It’s also more difficult between countries. So given that, and given that we have that leadership and we—you know, this is what we elected Obama to do.

JAY: But he says, ultimately—he said at a press conference today, ultimately science will decide this. Well, if you really believe the science, then you believe that we’re facing a catastrophe, poorer countries sooner, other countries later. When it came to the banking crisis, he found he could use the word “catastrophe”. He was able to put billions of dollars towards saving the banking system. But where’s that same speech on climate change? There was a little bit in the election campaign, but in terms of rallying the people that this is the fundamental issue facing humanity, if he believes it, where is that?

DAVIES: And that’s the disappointment is that he knows it. He’s clearly listening. He has the best scientific advisers, best scientists in the country at his elbow, telling him exactly what needs to be done, and yet they’re falling short. And he said it in his speech: he said there are those who will say science tells us to do more, and we’re not doing it. He’s saying, basically, we have failed to meet the measure of this challenge. It’s like if you lived on a lake, and there was some other player on the lake dumping pesticides in, and you said, “Hey, well, maybe we should not do that. We’re drinking the lake.” And they said, “Well, how about if I just dump a little bit in?” And you said, “Alright. That’s fine.” You know, this is not acceptable. We know exactly what needs to be done to save the ice caps, to head off catastrophic climate change that will hurt the poorest in the world. We’re not taking that on. That’s the major issue that’s been, you know, the problem.

JAY: But, Adele, you connected this with what’s happening in health care. Is it possible this will be some of the same problem of what happened with health care is you start with a proposal that’s already weak, and then you negotiate a weak proposal down to next to nothing? The targets that are being set out are really weak. Even the emission target for automobiles is really low compared to [inaudible] You know, you have many cars that doing in the 40s and upwards, almost to 50 miles per gallon now, and the target they want to meet is—I forget. What is it? Something like in the low 20s. It doesn’t make sense that—the issue is—like, are you not concerned that he doesn’t come out and rally the American people around this?

MORRIS: Well, I think you’ve got to look at the commitment he’s offered. The US is, you know, according to the administration and the bills that have been working their way through Congress, an 83 percent reduction in US emissions relative to 2005 levels by 2050. I think that’s a pretty ambitious long-run agenda. Now, what we do between here and 2020 matters, but what’s really going to matter to the atmosphere is what happens through 2050 and beyond. And so sometimes it’s easy to get hung up about what’s going to happen in the next, you know, ten years, when we have a lifetime of commitment to make to stabilize the atmosphere.

JAY: But the scientists are telling us stuff. The emissions have to peak around 2015 or you can’t hit the rest of the numbers. Right now—.

MORRIS: [inaudible] President Obama’s plan, that indeed would happen for the United States. And that’s what we have control over. Obviously, then, the challenge is for the US delegation to leverage US action into action by other parties that’s, you know, analogous. And so we had those discussions at Copenhagen in a way that we haven’t in any previous conference of the parties. And that’s a naturally difficult conversation to have, particularly with countries that are trying to bring a huge population out of poverty.

JAY: But what do you make of this situation? You know, we’re told about a third of the Senate doesn’t even believe there is such a thing as man-made climate change. You’ve got maybe growing numbers, actually; the numbers of Americans that believe there’s such a thing as man-made climate change are actually dropping, not going up.

DAVIES: Some polls, yeah.

JAY: Some polls are showing that.

DAVIES: Well, I mean, this is—again I agree. There’s an enormous challenge in passing anything in this country. We have a very divided country on this. Most of the numbers that are driving the polls down are Republican males who don’t believe in this, who listen to Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. So we can’t really judge it as a cross-section of America. The majority of Americans know this is a crisis. Every poll shows that the majority of Americans want something done and know this is a big problem. So that’s worked, and Obama has helped educate people about the subject. The real rubber-hits-the-road question is what you framed, that, you know, we have a near-term catastrophe, and if we don’t head off emissions worldwide and cap them and reduce them very quickly, scientists are saying it’s far worse than we thought. Ice caps are melting faster. Greenland is falling apart faster. We have now, on top of that, ocean acidification, which is a monster issue, and we’re just not doing enough. And so for the US—so that has been set out, and everybody said, well, for that to happen, the US has to do X. And we’re doing less than X. So everybody goes, well, that’s not okay. You know, and then you’re not doing your fair share, and you’re the richest country. You have plenty of latitude to do this. Huge economy. And to blame China or to blame India for their growing emissions, when, you know, they are trying to move their economies forward, but in fact we buy a lot of their stuff—a lot of China’s emissions are for making Barbie dolls, you know, that are sold in Wal-Marts in America. So that’s not really fair, to blame them for their growing economies. And likewise, per capita they still use far less and emit far less Carbon than any American does. And so it’s not a equitable and it’s not fair. And what we needed from the president, the leadership that we know and that, you know, we know his gut tells him what to do (he knows how the world works) is a fair and binding treaty that’s equitable and treats this issue with the urgency that it needs.

JAY: Well, do you see it happening? You see that this administration is dealing with things with the urgency it needs?

MORRIS: I would think it would be a big mistake for President Obama to go towards a tighter target for the United States in the international negotiations, because [if] he brings that promise home, and if Congress doesn’t follow through, I think it could create kind of a counterproductive situation. Now that the Copenhagen talks are done, our work is at home, getting our own house in order, getting legislation passed that can achieve our goals at a reasonable cost.

JAY: But is the legislation that’s in front of Congress—can it actually achieve these goals for 2050? Like, instead of decreasing the role of coal, it looks like there’s going to be an increased role for coal. President Obama says there’s clean coal, but as far as I understand it, there’s still no evidence there is such a thing as clean coal, even though the move towards coal is going ahead. Certainly no diminishing role of coal. Cap and trade—there’s enormous debate whether cap and trade actually can be effective, especially given offshore offsets, and whether that’s all verifiable. And President Obama’s talking about verifiable transparency at a global treaty, but it’s not clear there’s any verifiable transparency within American legislation itself.

MORRIS: Well, I think that you’ve raised several questions there. Certainly the caps in the cap-and-trade legislation do ratchet down eventually to the 83 percent below 2005 levels by 2050. So those are the emissions caps for the vast preponderance of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. Now, looking at the rules within that legislation about how that cap is achieved, there is a potentially significant role for these international offsets. And so reasonable people can differ about whether that magnitude of offsets makes sense or not and what kind of rules that are going to be around those crediting systems. I think we need to look very carefully at those, because we’re assuming in the legislation that there’s a one-for-one ton reduction abroad when we bring that credit back home.

JAY: Then there’s lots of evidence that’s not the [inaudible]

MORRIS: But there’s a trade-off. If you make these offsets extremely strict, they’re going to be costly, and they’re not going to fulfill the cost-reducing objective of the offset program that—. For example, in the EPA’s analysis, they’re showing that when you access all these offsets, you’re going to have a domestic carbon price that’s almost half of what it would be without those offsets. So there’s a trade-off. Do you want to make them loose and available and low-cost? Or do you want to make them extremely strict and potentially raise the cost of the program? That’s the choice.

DAVIES: This is where I think we’ll disagree mostly is that we think that the bill that’s before—the prevailing bills (there are several flavors now) are basically written as get-out-of-jail-free cards for a lot of industry, and they were written to reduce costs intentionally, because otherwise the industry wouldn’t, you know, cede the ground. And that’s where bringing it back home and being afraid of whether it’s going to be voted through the Congress, it’s chicken-and-egg: if we knew that the Congress—if the president was leading and pushing, and we had true leadership in the Congress as well (not to put all the burden on the president), if we had leaders in this country who knew the right thing to do and pushed for it and were stubborn enough and put up, you know, the fight against the right-wingers who don’t want anything to happen, basically, and who are attacking him politically on it, then we have a basis for a discussion about the right targets. What the problem is now, we have this bill that is very weak, in our estimation, has a lot of giveaways. And the offsets—I mean, just to give an example, so that means someone can continue to burn coal in Ohio and buy a credit for a forest in Bolivia that may or may not stay alive through the climate crisis, and then we destroy the planet in two places, you know, and the atmosphere gets twice the hit. That’s not fair, and that’s not a good, environmentally sound treaty. So, you know, where do we go from here? We have to be realistic about what we can get through our Congress, but that doesn’t mean we should just say, “Well, that’s the most we can do,” because we know we can do more. We know we can do more on things like energy efficiency. There’s no lobbyist for energy efficiency on Capitol Hill. There’s lobbyists for oil and coal. We know we could do an enormous amount with demand-side reduction in energy, you know, stopping efficiency and conservation, stopping the use of of energy. But nobody’s lobbying for that. You know, the president went to Home Depot today to lobby for himself. So this is the challenge. We have, you know, the wrong set of commanders in this country pushing for the bills. That has set the bar for America. And then the president goes over and fails to lead [inaudible]

JAY: Well, in the next segment of our interview, let’s talk about the other piece of what was such a controversy at Copenhagen, which was the fight between the advanced industrialized countries and the global South, because maybe we’re going to have to face a fact here, that this Copenhagen conference is a pretty good indication that we are not going to meet the 2 degree target, that if the science is right, we are facing a catastrophe, particularly for the global South, and what are we going to do about it. Please join us for the next segment of our interview on The Real News Network.

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Adele Morris is a Fellow, Global Economy and Development and Policy Director for Climate and Energy Economics, Global Economy and Development at The Brookings Institution and Kurt Davies is research director at Greenpeace USA