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Can anything be achieved if the US fails to commit?

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay, in Washington, DC. Copenhagen is a couple of days away from being done, and it may have been done a few days ago. People are getting rather pessimistic about whether there’s going to be an outcome that’s going to achieve much. We shall see what our guests think. We’re joined now by Daniel J. Weiss. He’s a senior fellow and director, climate strategy, the Center for American Progress. And Daphne Wysham. She’s at the Institute for Policy Studies. Thank you both for joining me.


JAY: So I’m going to start with the person who’s likely to be more optimistic about this. So what’s your take? Is Copenhagen heading over a cliff? Or is it going to achieve anything?

WEISS: Well, first of all, the discussions in Copenhagen have already achieved some unprecedented things. Three big global-warming polluters—China, India, and the United States—have done something that they’ve never done before, which is put on the table a numerical reduction in global-warming pollution that the nations will try and achieve over the coming years. That’s never happened before, and that’s very big. Second, although the negotiations have not resulted in a political agreement yet, these things often play out where the agreements come together in the final hours of the meeting. And so it’s sort of like a freshman in college fooling around, and then right before finals pulling an all-nighter. That’s often what happens at these negotiations, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the same thing happens again.

JAY: But what makes you think this isn’t a continuation of what we saw even at Kyoto? Most of the countries that signed the agreement, Kyoto Agreement, didn’t achieve it, like—Canada’s a good example: signed it and didn’t achieve it. Only Europe is likely to get there. What makes you think out of Copenhagen not just some nice words and not much action afterwards?

WEISS: Well, first of all, the science is much clearer and much more compelling that carbon pollution is causing global warming. We’ve just had the hottest decade on record, according to NASA and also the World Meteorological Organization in Europe. So, you know, the Arctic ice is melting much faster than was projected. The science is much clearer now than it was a dozen years ago. Second, the commitments that people are putting on the table are much more likely to occur, because they’re going to be backed up by action. For example, in China they’re incorporating their energy-efficiency and renewable-energy goals into their five-year plan, and in the Chinese economy, if something’s in the five-year plan, it happens. And so I think that there’s a lot to be optimistic about coming out of this. And you remember the intention is to sort of have the outlines of an agreement, and negotiations will continue and hopefully wrap up early next year.

JAY: Daphne, the expectation was a legally binding agreement, a year ago the expectations, not a few months ago. Are you optimistic about what’s happening here?

DAPHNE WYSHAM, BOARD MEMBER, THE INSTITUTE FOR POLICY STUDIES: Well, I think, as Dan said, there is reason for optimism. I just wanted to amplify a couple of points that he put out there, namely, China and India have put on the table some ambitious carbon-intensity targets, which are different from actual reduction targets. That’s sort of what Bush did back when he was in office. He talked about carbon intensity, which really means, “We will continue with business as usual, with more stringent efficiency standards.” It doesn’t mean that there are absolute targets on the table. And the US targets that are on the table amount to 4 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, when the developing countries, the small island states and others, are calling for upwards of 40 percent emissions reductions—some up to 48 percent—by 2020 below 1990 levels. And, of course, the 350 parts per million target is also a critical goal for African countries, for small island states, and right now what the US has put forward will get us nowhere near 350 parts per million. In fact, some number crunchers have suggested that the commitments that are on the table right now from a variety of different countries would get us to somewhere around 770 parts per million. So, clearly, that’s not a good direction, that is not cause for optimism, if that’s where you’re going. However,—.

JAY: Well, why is there any reason to think that isn’t where we are going? China’s very firm. The Chinese delegation was quoted at Copenhagen: “We didn’t come here to negotiate. These are our targets. End of story.” What’s happening in the United States, especially in Congress, doesn’t lead one to much optimism.

WYSHAM: Well, I mean, the context for China’s commitment is important to put out there to the American people and to others, which is that, of course, the US has made no commitment. So for us to suggest that China at this stage in the game has to make a commitment is the height of hypocrisy, and the Chinese are reacting to that. If we were to say, you know, we are going to commit to technology transfer, to financial resources, I think we would have a much more compliant China. But the fact that US negotiators are saying flat out, “We’re not going to give any money to China,” and they’re saying, “You first,” when in fact, you know, the entire deal is structured on Annex I countries like the US, who has yet to join the Kyoto protocol, going first—so it’s a bit of, you know, brinksmanship. As Dan said, a lot of this happens in the last few, you know, wee hours of the morning on Saturday morning, where, you know, all the sort of positioning is out of the way and you really get down to brass tacks. But the US team has really made a lot of missteps that have, I think, gotten rid of some goodwill that was building up a few weeks ago between the US and China.

WEISS: [inaudible] important to note that the US historically has contributed about a quarter of all the global warming pollution that’s already in the atmosphere, and China has contributed a very small portion, even though they are now the number-one largest annual emitter. So those who contributed the most need to begin to do the most. I don’t agree with Daphne’s assessment about how much the US is going to do. For example, the World Resources Institute did an analysis of the global warming and clean energy bill that the House of Representatives passed, and if you look at all the policies in there, it would get about a 14 percent reduction in global warming pollution below 1990 levels. So that’s a good start. Can we do more? Yes. Could every country do more? Yes. But we’ve got to start someplace. And the goal is to be able to say we are going to be bending the curve of pollution levels by the end of this coming decade. It has to be bending from going up to going down. And if we can begin to do that with agreements we make here and, hopefully, with legislation that’s passed in the US Senate and by the Congress next year, then we will have accomplished something.

WYSHAM: Well, one of the problems—I know there are some disputes over the numbers, and World Resources Institute has one number and other groups have another. But regardless of which number, 14 percent or 4 percent below 1990 levels, the vast majority of those emissions reductions could be achieved by an entirely unverifiable commodity, the carbon offset. The US Government Accountability Office says it’s virtually impossible to verify carbon offsets, and yet US legislation that has moved through the House and that is on its way through the Senate allows for 2 billion tons of carbon offsets per year.

JAY: Before we get into that, ’cause we’re going to do a whole segment on that following this, let’s just stay on Copenhagen for now. One of the big questions is: is there going to be a fund to help the developing world both go green and deal with some of the consequences of mitigating the crisis? And that seems to be one of the biggest roadblocks. Where are we at [inaudible]

WYSHAM: Well, there are some interesting proposals on the table. France and Ethiopia have both put forward some interesting ideas. One is for a financial transaction tax that would be a small levy imposed on all financial transactions that could automatically generate revenue to be handed over to developing countries to address adaptation and mitigation of climate change. A tax on bunker fuels is also in the works, marine bunker fuels, that could generate on the order of $10 billion a year. Aviation tax could result in another, I don’t know, $5-10 billion or more per year. And there are special drawing rights that are also a possibility.

JAY: And these are taxes that have to be more or less globally agreed to.

WYSHAM: Yes, and revenue streams that need to be globally agreed to.

JAY: And when you say they’re being talked about, the kind of noise or drumbeats coming out of Copenhagen doesn’t sound like that kind of agreement [inaudible] possibly in such agreement?

WYSHAM: That’s what we’re hoping will come forward. But we’re clearly running out of time. I mean, we’ve only got a few—.

JAY: Is the US government in favor of any of this?

WYSHAM: The US Treasury has not been in favor of anything, as far as I know, except possibly the bunker fuels approach. But, you know, I think a lot of these ideas are at the inception stage. They haven’t been fully vetted by economists and others in the US. They have been more seriously discussed in Europe and elsewhere. But the fact that we’re now putting forward some really significant numbers, as opposed to the $10 billion that’s been on the table for some time, which clearly is a laughable number when you’re—. You know, when you’re talking about entire countries going underwater, $10 billion is an insult. So what we really need is on the order of hundreds of billions of dollars. How we generate that, how we do that in a way that is not going to result in a political backlash in the United States at a time of economic crisis, is a challenge. But I think we’re beginning to have some very creative solutions being put forward.

JAY: Now, you said early in the interview, the science is clearer than ever. Then the sense of urgency, one would think, is clearer than ever. But are you satisfied with the American administration? In other words, are they leading a charge towards binding agreement? ‘Cause when you look at the US and China, you do not see the sense of urgency.

WEISS: Well, here’s the problem. First of all, we’ve had eight years of nothing but “no” out of the Bush administration. So now what we’re trying to do is try and start a car that’s been stalled for eight years. And you can’t expect that car to be able to compete in the Talladega 500 right after you’ve started it. You’ve got to get time to get it going. And President Obama has done that. They’ve already adopted a number of policies that would lead to real pollution reductions in the United States. He’s working with Congress to get Congress to adapt real pollution reductions. What he wants to avoid is what happened in Kyoto, where the US government, or the administration, made a commitment without the support of Congress [inaudible] together [inaudible]

JAY: Are you satisfied? Is there a sense of urgency in the US government?

WYSHAM: I think Obama, you know, on the one hand, he has done a lot with the economic stimulus package and with other measures that he’s put in place, by moving forward aggressively with EPA action and so on. But he really has been leading from behind. He’s been saying, you know, we have to wait for Congress to come to an agreement, and he hasn’t been leading with a sense of the real—you know, the urgency of this particular moment in history, because it really is a critical year, both politically—we’ve got elections next year in Congress. There are all sorts of reasons to get this deal done now. And he has been perhaps distracted by, you know, other things, like the health-care bill, the Afghanistan war, and so on, but this is an issue that is just going to get more and more urgent with time. And the concern is really that not only is he not leading Congress, but he could actually take even more aggressive action without Congress. He could actually come to Copenhagen and offer some agreements, some legally binding approaches to emissions reductions, without getting Congress on board. He does have that authority.

WEISS: Well, it’s important to note he’s already acted without Congress by establishing much stricter fuel economy standards back in May than what Congress just passed just two years ago.

JAY: But still extremely modest standards.

WEISS: It’s a 40 percent increase in fuel economy.

JAY: But as you said, 40 percent over eight years of no action. But compared to what’s going on what’s going on the rest of the world [inaudible]

WEISS: Well, right. But we have to understand you’ve got to start someplace. And we have been [inaudible]

JAY: But you also have to arouse public opinion about it, and one does not hear much of that.

WEISS: Are you kidding? President Obama talks about the clean-energy transformation in almost every speech that’s about the economy. The clean-energy provisions of the recovery package is, as The New York Times called it, the largest energy bill ever. And so he’s already done a lot. But it’s also important that this whole endeavor could fall apart if he tries to go too fast without the support of Congress behind him. And he has been working to—he worked in the House to get the bill passed there. He’s working in the Senate to try and move forward there. And so he has really done a lot. But it’s only been 11 months since we’ve had 8 years of nothing.

JAY: Well, in the next segment of our interview, let’s talk about just what is being fought for in Congress and is it really going to make a difference. Please join us for the segment of our interview (and we’re going to talk about cap-and-trade) on The Real News Network.

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Daphne Wysham is a Fellow and board member of the Institute for Policy Studies, founder and co-director of the Sustainable Energy and Economy Network, a project of IPS, and founder and co-host of Earthbeat Radio.

Daniel J. Weiss is a Senior Fellow and the Director of Climate Strategy at the Center for American Progress, he leads the Center's clean energy and climate advocacy campaign. He spent 25 years working with environmental advocacy organizations and political campaigns. Weiss is an expert in energy and environmental policy; legislative strategy and tactics; and advocacy communications.

Daphne Wysham is a Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and founder and host of Earthbeat, now airing on 61 public radio stations in the US and Canada.