Climate Talks Near Close, No Breakthroughs Expected

Delegates from nearly 200 countries gathered for a U.N. climate conference in South Africa have been frustrated by a lack of consensus on how to reduce carbon emissions. Many participants are pointing to major emitters like the U.S. and China for the lack of progress.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. We're going to spend most of this hour hearing stories about how we're adapting to hard times, and we want you to act as our reporters. Tell us how a friend or a colleague, a neighborhood or a town has changed in these challenging economic circumstances of the past few years. Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org.

But we're going to begin with the United Nations Climate Conference in Durbin, South Africa, which wraps up tomorrow, and will not achieve its goal of a new global agreement to curb carbon emissions.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon admitted as much as he opened this week's discussions. A major problem is that the largest emitters - the United States and China - refuse to sign on. NPR's science correspondent, Richard Harris, joins us now from Durbin. Richard, thanks very much for staying up to talk with us.

RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: Sure. Hi, Neal.

CONAN: Hi, and was there any hope of real progress?

HARRIS: Well, there's still a slim sliver of hope that something will come out of this beyond just some technical advances. But there never was an expectation of a very large advance. But you know, they're noodling around still. They are arguing, they're posturing, they're positioning, and they're trying to see if they can get something out of this beyond just sort of the more mundane, technical stuff that they went in expecting that they'd be able to get.

CONAN: And the crux of the problem has been China, which says it is still a developing nation, much of its population in poverty and cannot afford to sign on to emissions restrictions; and the United States saying, hey, if China doesn't do it, we're not going to do it.

HARRIS: Well, that is one dynamic going on here, and it's an easy narrative to tell. But there are many, many other narratives going on. Let's not forget India is also in similar circumstances, and India may actually prove to be an even tougher case to crack than China here.

So the problem is the world is really not ready to say let's all take binding - legally binding commitments. They've just adjusted two years ago to the idea of what is being called pledge and review, where countries set their own goals and say we will try to meet these goals, and you can judge us to see if we succeed or not, and if we don't, you can scold us, you can shame us, but we'll do that instead of a legally binding treaty.

The problem with that pledge and review process is the pledges that have come out actually fall pretty far short of doing what's needed to stop global warming, and so people are trying to figure out, well, what else can we do, what other tools do we have in order to accomplish that, in order to bring emissions down even more?

And some people believe that the legally binding track is the way to go. Other people aren't so such. And as a result, there's just not unanimity about how to move forward here.

CONAN: Paralysis, though, at a time when everybody seems to agree we are approaching, if not past, the tipping point.

HARRIS: That's true. It's not exactly clear when the tipping point will be. It has been politically defined as no more than two degrees centigrade increase in global temperature since before the Industrial Revolution, and we're creeping up in that general direction right now for sure. There's a little bit of headroom but not much, and if you just look at the numbers, it seems as though it won't be very long before we put so much carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the air that we will pass that point that, as I say, is more politically defined.

There's no really clear scientific point where we all have to be completely panicked, but obviously with even tenth of a degree, it's more likely that something really drastic could happen.

CONAN: And in this country, we continue to hear a lot of people, including a lot of elected officials, saying they're not sure what the cause of this change in temperatures - why it's being caused. Is it due to human activity? Is it just cyclical? I'm not sure that there's much doubt there in Durbin.

HARRIS: No, it's a peculiar thing that people do not really understand why this is still a political debate about whether this is for real and happening. Practically everywhere else in the world says - has embraced that. And in fact, there's a large percentage of American population that says yes to that, and clearly the overwhelming number of scientists around the world say that's clearly the case.

So it's an odd thing that people are confused about it. I think part of it is that it's easier to say, well, maybe it's not such a big problem than it is to say, wow, it's a problem, and you realize how hard it is to solve it, because the U.S. already has actually fairly ambitious goals for reducing its emissions over the next decade.

They're tough to meet even as they are, and then to have the world turn around and say, well, guess what, everyone's goals still aren't good enough, that's kind of a frustrating position to be in, and you can understand why some people might say, well, maybe we don't really have to worry about it. But unfortunately, most of the world regards that just as wishful thinking.

CONAN: Well, where do we stand? There was the Kyoto Protocol back in 1997. The United States did not sign onto that. Is that still in effect? Is that going to expire? What?

HARRIS: Yeah, well, most of that does expire at the end of next year, and Europe, it's clear that that didn't work because the U.S. didn't sign on, and many other nations, including China, didn't have any obligations under it. They signed it, but they were obligated to do nothing; the same with India and Brazil, and many of the other major emitters basically had a free ride.

And so the U.S. says we don't want to go down that road again. Let's do something that gets everyone onboard. And what the European Union is doing here at this meeting is they are still part of the Kyoto Protocol, and they're saying, look, we can sort of have this thing limp along until 2020 because there are other features of it that the nations of the world want, but they're trying to use that as leverage to begin negotiating whatever comes next.

And the problem, as we talked about a little bit earlier, is nobody really knows - agrees about what the form of that thing should be that comes next.

CONAN: And we're talking about China, we're talking about India. People will note that in 1997, in much better economic times, the United States did not sign on to Kyoto. And of course one of the arguments now is, well, we certainly can't restrict carbon emissions at a time of economic difficulties. The United States seems to always find a reason not to sign on.

HARRIS: Well, actually, technically the U.S. did sign the Kyoto Protocol, but...

CONAN: Never ratified it.

HARRIS: Yeah, they never ratified it, and that's always the trick because you need two-thirds of the vote of the U.S. Senate to do that. And that is a very high hurdle. It's actually a much harder hurdle than it is in practically anywhere else in the world. And so the U.S. has a much harder time getting to the legally binding endpoint.

And it's not just about money, although money is clearly part of it, because the Obama administration actually has been enacting things like vastly improved automobile emission standards, which will help bring down our emissions. We're waiting to hear a rule from the EPA about reducing emissions from power plants and so on.

So, you know, it costs some money, but it's not, it's not, you know, an economic shock to the system. And you know, Europe is going down the same path as well. Everyone's trying to figure this out. And - but it's not - even the worst-case scenarios don't show that these are sort of bankrupting problems.

The issue really is that you - it has to happen quickly because if you build a coal-powered plant today, it could run for 50 years. And so those - the commitments you're making right now for future energy take a long time to change out of.

CONAN: Has there been discussion there - I'm not suggesting in the meetings but on the sidelines - of what it might take to focus people's minds?

HARRIS: Well, I'm afraid I have only sort of grim views about that. The people who have really thought about that and are starting to say what it will really take is some sort of major climate crisis that is unmistakable. We've clearly had some very severe weather in the U.S. this year, more billion-dollar storms than ever before on record, more temperature records broken and so on.

And so there certainly are hints. If you ask the Australians, they went through a huge drought and wildfires, had all sorts of problems, and perhaps not coincidentally they turned around and came up with a carbon tax and are going to be moving to do some carbon control in Australia.

And so, you know, they're - but the sense is you almost need a sense of something dire happening to focus the mind. And of course then it may be really hard to react. If you're watching, like, you know, ice melt irreparably, you're in trouble.

CONAN: There's another idea that some float, and that is to try to engineer our way out of this, to find a way of reducing carbon in the atmosphere by, well, any number of strange ideas, including, you know, putting mirrors in orbit to reflect some sunlight back out into space. Was there talk of that?

HARRIS: That has not been brought up here, but certainly it is being talked about a lot, you know, at venues. One of the major problems with that is that none of those systems really get rid of the carbon dioxide or prevent more carbon dioxide from building up in the atmosphere. And unfortunately that carbon dioxide is dissolving into the ocean, becoming carbonic acid and turning the oceans more acidic.

So even if you could hold the globe's temperature down by mirrors or putting sulfur dioxide particles or something like that up in the atmosphere, you have not solved some of the other very important problems - turning the oceans more acidic, which could have all sorts of ramifications.

CONAN: As this meeting concludes, probably without a major achievement, there must be increasing frustration with meetings of this sort.

HARRIS: I think that is one of the big risks here that people are concerned about. If you walk away from this with essentially nothing, or you could actually - this meeting could actually not conclude. They could decide instead of having a complete disaster, they could sort of suspend it and carry on the rest of the meeting sometime early next year. That's an idea that's floating.

But clearly people are looking at this process and wondering, you know, is the U.N. process relevant, how to keep it relevant if, you know, those who believe that international cooperation is key to dealing with climate change, I think that's on - that's very much on everyone's minds. And no one wants the whole - or I shouldn't say no one, but I think the majority of the countries, the people you talk to in the hallways, they don't want this to blow up like that. But that's certainly on the back of everyone's mind.

CONAN: And in the meantime, Ban Ki-moon, as he opened this conference on Monday, the major part of the conference, said we're not going to be able to reach a major agreement. He said momentum is, however, important. Is there any way that they're going to be able to sustain anything that looks like momentum?

HARRIS: Well, they are working very hard. The ministers, the top diplomats are meeting behind closed doors. Right now it's 10 o'clock at night and they're locked up in a room trying to figure out some compromise that will keep this thing moving forward, because people do want to maintain momentum here.

And exactly what form it will take, I've talked to people all day about that. Everyone has a different idea, but nobody has - no one can see a pathway through to any one of those. But these are - you know, the dynamics of these meetings are very unpredictable, and maybe, you know, at three in the morning on Saturday morning somebody will finally say, okay, we'll move further than we thought we would move, or something like that will happen.

So these - this is going to be a real cliffhanger.

CONAN: Richard Harris, thanks very much, and again, we appreciate your staying up to talk with us.

HARRIS: Always a pleasure, Neal.

CONAN: NPR's science correspondent Richard Harris, with us from Durbin in South Africa, where he's covering the U.N. Climate Conference.

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