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The global south will pay the price of inaction

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay, in Washington, DC. And yesterday the Copenhagen conference wound up. Not much achieved, some say. Others say, well, got things started. But one thing for sure, targets that are being talked about are unlikely to be met. And what does that mean for the global South? That’s what we’re going to talk about in this segment. We are joined again by a Adele Morris. She’s a fellow and policy director, Climate Energy Economics Project, the Brookings Institute. And Kert Davies is a research director at Greenpeace. Thanks for joining us again. So is it time to face facts that this objective of not getting 2 degrees by the end of the century is not going to be met and the reductions that are being talked about by 2050 ain’t happening? And as long as this American politics, particularly, remains so paralyzed on this, that the global South is going to pay the price for this?

KERT DAVIES, DIRECTOR OF RESEARCH, GREENPEACE USA: Well, you know, clearly we need a policy that’s driven by science, and we’ve been calling on this. You know, for years Greenpeace has been in the game, saying 2 degrees should be a target. Now scientists are saying 2 degrees might even be too much, because 2 degrees on average, it means a lot more at the poles, it means rapid meltdown [inaudible]

JAY: And then just there was—a couple of months ago there was one of the committees of the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] said if things keep going the way they’re going, we may actually be talking 6 degrees.

DAVIES: That’s right. And there was a paper that leaked out this week in Copenhagen that said if we meet the pledges that are even on the table, even the ambitious pledges of the Annex I countries that we still reach well over 2 degrees, we’re going to be in the 3.5 degree range or greater. So, you know, what does this mean? It means we have to do far more, far more quickly than countries seem willing to do. And that either means there’s some magic technological breakthrough, or suddenly people become more fair to each other worldwide. And we can’t hope for that behavior change, so, you know, we have to hope that leadership emerges or that the crisis becomes more apparent to people worldwide very quickly.

JAY: It’s almost as if the political leaders and whole sections of the elite don’t really believe the science. And if the science is right, Bangladesh is moving to India. The geopolitical implications of the mass migration that’s going to happen as various countries, either through famine or flooding—massive movements of populations. In terms of anyone looking at the geopolitics of all this, it’s a game-changer, but they’re not acting that way.

ADELE MORRIS, POLICY DIR. CLIMATE AND ENERGY ECON., BROOKINGS INST.: Well, certainly the projections of climate-change impacts and all the disruptions that are forecast are very compelling. I think what’s driving leaders, at least in the United States, is that while we have the long-run risk of climate change—and we can talk about what how to define long-run versus short run—we’re in the middle of a really bad recession, and it’s a tough economic climate to be talking about measures that are going to constrain the economy in any way.

JAY: But there’s so much evidence that a green economy is—and you put the stimulus money into a real green economy, you actually solve the problem with growth. You don’t have to restrain growth.

MORRIS: I have to disagree.

JAY: But when you look at what happened in Detroit, instead of turning the auto industry to some engine of propelling greening of the economy, they slash and burn it.

MORRIS: I think it’s enormously tempting to characterize a cap-and-trade program as a growth initiative.

JAY: Well, I wasn’t talking cap and trade.

MORRIS: Well, okay. So the main component of the regulatory system that we’re contemplating is a constraint on carbon emissions. And if you do that, you know, you might create jobs in the renewable energy sector and some sectors will grow, other sectors are going to decline, and the net result of that may not be that it’s a jobs program.

JAY: But some of the modeling shows it is. I mean, for example, the retrofitting in buildings, the creation of alternative energy. I mean, there seems to be, in terms of net job gain—.

MORRIS: Well, some of the stimulus program items such as you describe may very well provide jobs in those sectors. But like I said, when you put a price on carbon, there is not a robust economic literature that shows that that boosts economic activity.

JAY: Well, what do you make of [inaudible]

MORRIS: And actually to the contrary.

DAVIES: You know, I think there’s—.

JAY: I mean, if that’s true, then it is going to be hard to persuade people in a depression to do something [inaudible]

MORRIS: Even the EPA’s own analysis of the Waxman-Markey bill that passed the House this summer indicates a very slight decline in its projected rate of growth in GDP. I think it’s affordable, I think it’s reasonable, given the seriousness of this issue, but I also think it indicates it’s an overstatement to say that cap and trade boosts economic gravity.

JAY: Again, I’m not saying cap and trade.

DAVIES: I mean, this is not far from the argument of the American Petroleum Institute or the Chamber of Commerce, who say this is going to kill jobs, and the line of those who want to kill any bill that comes up, even if it’s weak.

JAY: Okay, it may be their argument, but is it wrong?

DAVIES: It’s absolutely wrong. I mean, well, it can’t be right, because we have no choice but to move to a green economy. Clean coal or carbon sequestration is not a green job. That’s how the bill is structured, that building pipelines to move carbon dioxide around this country through communities is going to be called a green job. That’s not okay. What we need are transformational jobs that move us to better—like you said, better building infrastructure: jobs for carpenters, for builders, for people who put in insulation and windows and better electoral systems, better lighting. Those are the real jobs, not building wind turbines and solar panels, right? So the Chamber of Commerce is attacking this as undermining the economy. The conservative groups will attack it as, you know, eliminating our freedom or rationing energy. All those are false arguments that basically are perpetuating the status quo, which is a fossil-fuel-dependent economy that will never go forward and never, you know, bridge this gap to find solutions to climate change if we’re stuck in that fear mode. And I think that’s where we disagree. There’s no limit. And Obama [inaudible]

JAY: Well, fear mode or realistic mode?

MORRIS: Well, I’m just going to confine my comments on EPA’s own analysis of the outcomes of this bill. And so I think there are trade-offs you’re going to make.

JAY: You’re talking about just this bill. What I was raising was something that goes far beyond the bill. Look, I’m not just—I’m not talking about cap and trade; I’m not talking about this bill. What I’m saying is if you had a real industrial strategy to invest in Detroit and the whole infrastructure of America, which is what President Obama talked about in the election campaign—in fact, it’s one of the things he was elected for—if you really did that, why does green have to be the opponent of growth?

MORRIS: I’m not saying green is the opponent of growth. I’m saying that when we aim to protect the environment, we might be making a trade-off, and that trade-off might make a whole lot of sense, but I think we need to be honest with ourselves of what projected energy prices are going to look like when you move away from burnable dirt.

DAVIES: And this is the point: we must get out of the business of burning dirt, burning coal and burning oil, burning the earth. And if we don’t move to greener sources of energy which are not nuclear power and not [inaudible]

JAY: But Adele is saying let’s be realistic about it so people understand there may be various kinds of sacrifices here in terms of growth and employment.

DAVIES: This is part of the problem with the prevailing, you know, cap and trade or the structures of these bills is that there are other alternatives. I mean, basically we need to put a cap on the pollution, you know, just like any other environmental law, capping the problem, and then find a way to reduce it over time. And there are other solutions. Many are in favor of various forms of taxes. In fact, within this legislation, the government could impose taxes on different things, and then it equitizes things. If you remove the subsidies for fossil fuel, which is part of Obama’s promise to the world now, and he’s said that if you remove the subsidies, then the price of wind and solar, it looks pretty even. You know, you can’t actually talk about the current economy without talking about what subsidizes the dirty economy we’re in.

JAY: So let’s go back to what we were going to talk about in this segment, which is nothing’s happening very quickly in the United States and it’s very unlikely to. The legislative agenda’s paralyzed on health care. There’s a war going on in Afghanistan and Iraq. Who knows how serious one should take the rhetoric about Iran. There’s a terrible jobs crisis here. So whatever is possible in terms of green growth and all the rest of it, it ain’t happening fast here, and it’s not going to happen fast enough to really mitigate the consequences of what’s going to happen to the global South. So, first of all, what do you think we’re likely to see in the next 5, 10, 15 years in the global South? And what will be the consequences of it?

DAVIES: Well, I mean, clearly what science has shown us and what the projections have shown us is that the poorest on Earth get hit the hardest by climate change.

JAY: And is that part of why nothing much is happening?

DAVIES: Well, it’s part of why [inaudible]

JAY: ‘Cause, I mean, it’s not like the poorest of the earth weren’t already hit in terms of starvation and lack of clean drinking water. And is the real story is the advanced countries really don’t give a damn?

DAVIES: There’s no reason to really care is the problem. I mean, we care about displaced people; we care about environmental refugees. Military experts are saying this is a crisis because there’s going to be more wars driven by environmental refugees, driven by climate change. You know, many ex-generals have come out and said this is a national security issue for that reason alone, climate change, and we have to solve it just in our own self-interest with not having these displaced populations causing trouble all over the world, if you think very xenophobically. But this is not—what’s going to help poor people around the world is actually the same green-energy revolution. What stuck the talks up was how to transfer that technology, how to provide funding for that that is still in the self-interests of corporations, frankly, and they’re not willing to give anything away, and no one wants to build new technology in China because they’re afraid they’ll steal the technology, steal the, you know, intellectual property. That’s not fair, and that’s not going to help people in Africa have cleaner energy sources or people in the sub-Saharan, you know, in South Asia get over it. So what we’re stuck on is giant geopolitical, you know, divides that pervade many issues. This is [inaudible]

JAY: So how is it going to change?

DAVIES: Well, this is like solving, you know, world peace or anything else: there is no real solution. It’s going to take many generations to get this done. And that we say today is a first step or Copenhagen is the first step is always going to be true—everything is a first step unless you’re just falling backwards. But, you know, the question is how fast you walk. And if we don’t walk quickly enough, we’re going to have millions of people displaced and harmed and killed by the climate crisis in coming generations.

JAY: If you could design a piece of legislation that’s ideal, forget the politics of what can be passed through the Senate, ’cause everyone seems to want to start in this town with what will the Senate pass, and then you can wind up with Joe Lieberman actually did win, you know, actually was president. Maybe that’s what we’re going to find out secretly: it was actually Lieberman won the election. If you don’t want to start out with that, what would you like to see? What’s the right bill?

MORRIS: Well, I think the House has done a lot of work and I think the Senate can make some improvements. I know Kert’s going to disagree with me, but I think one of the things to do with the bill is to provide some more economic certainty. One of the things I worry about with the bill, when you’re setting an emissions cap, you don’t know exactly what it’s going to cost. And, honestly, I think what we really need to do is have a program that sustains through generation and is not vulnerable to the political ups and downs. I’d hate to see the cap and trade get overturned as soon as we have a change in who controls Congress or the White House. So to keep the program on the rails, I think we need to put some limits on how low the price of carbon can go and how high the price of carbon can go. And we can talk about what those levels should be, but we should at least have those constraints so that we know that this program is going to survive fluctuations in the economic environment.

DAVIES: I agree with you that, you know, having this, setting something in place that survives various presidents and the windshield wiper of American politics, when you have, you know, George Bush’s daughters as president some day or something, it has to be everlasting. It has to be something that means enough and is set in stone enough that we get something done. The problem with controlling the price, of course, is that that’s exactly what industry wants is predictability, and they really want no pain. They want us, for example, on coal, they want us taxpayers now to pay for the R&D, to actually subsidize the building of the so-called clean coal plants, to also indemnify them from risk if any of the carbon dioxide pipelines were to happen to burst or something bad happened, and then pay more for electricity, frankly, because it’s going to cost a lot more to produce. So we can either pay four times—. And then they have us over a barrel, because if we don’t agree to that, they say, “Hey, your government just raised your energy costs by imposing this carbon tax,” and they try to kill the bill. So really this is the track we’re in: we’re stuck in a dirty economy, and getting out of it means overturning a lot of houses of cards, a lot of different, you know, major powers—the big coal, big oil, you know, auto before Detroit fell apart—all these blocs who for many years—. I mean, when you were in the Clinton administration, you know the pressure from industry is tremendous. And they thought like crazy after Kyoto. They tried to neuter and destroy the Clinton administration’s last work after Kyoto like it was the end of the world. And they’re back at it. They know that now the momentum is greater than ever, 2009 was an amazing year, and they’re going to fight even harder in 2010 to kill the Senate bill, to kill any momentum on this issue.

JAY: Well, maybe when people see the connection between what’s happening on the health-care front, the climate-change front, and the employment front—

DAVIES: And banking.

JAY: —and banking and finance, maybe the people who have been saying we can’t keep doing business as usual, well, maybe Americans are finally going to say we can’t do politics as usual.

DAVIES: That’s right.

JAY: We’ll see. Thanks for joining us on The Real News Network.

Adele Morris and Kurt Davies

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