Climate Talks End With Meager Promises

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Clouds of smoke billow from metal alloy factory in China i

As the world's leading emitter of carbon dioxide, China is resisting calls to reduce their emissions. They claim that most of the carbon already in the atmosphere today has been emitted by the U.S. and other nations. Above, smoke billows from a metal alloy factory in northwest China's Gansu province. STR/AP hide caption

itoggle caption STR/AP
Clouds of smoke billow from metal alloy factory in China

As the world's leading emitter of carbon dioxide, China is resisting calls to reduce their emissions. They claim that most of the carbon already in the atmosphere today has been emitted by the U.S. and other nations. Above, smoke billows from a metal alloy factory in northwest China's Gansu province.

STR/AP

International climate talks held in Italy this week ended with little progress. The rich industrial nations wouldn't promise to cut back their emissions in the near term. And China, India and the rest of the developing world wouldn't commit to cutting their emissions, ever.

All nations of the world need to act to reduce the risk of a climate catastrophe. But so far, there's much more posturing than action.

Underlying The Deadlock

China argues that the United States and other rich nations put most of the carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, so they need to act first and most aggressively. They demand that those nations slash their carbon dioxide emissions by a staggering 40 percent — in just 10 years.

"Well, it's obviously a totally unrealistic position, and it is not just the Chinese, it is the developing countries in general," says Eileen Claussen, president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, who was once a diplomat. She regards this demand as little more than an over-the-top bargaining tactic.

"I think, honestly, that doesn't work, and it does create a backlash, because people think that they're just not serious."

But, Claussen says, China actually is serious about climate change. The government believes it's a real risk. But the country also feels it can't wean itself from cheap fossil fuels just yet. Ken Lieberthal of the Brookings Institution says China is still struggling to pull hundreds of millions of people out of poverty.

"They have to build a new city for about 1.25 million people — poor people — roughly every month, and they have been doing that for several years, and they are going to have to do that for another 15 to 20 years. So, they figure there is no way at this point they can credibly commit to actually bring down their total carbon emissions," Lieberthal says.

That means that any kind of global plan will have to let China, which is the world's leading emitter, emit more and more carbon for decades to come.

The industrialized world, on the other hand, has acknowledged that the world needs to take dramatic action and has set ambitious long-range goals. But they haven't agreed to near-term action plans. That was frustrating to Phil Radford, executive director of Greenpeace USA, who was at the talks in Italy.

"It's almost diagnosing your child with cancer but not taking the kid to the doctor. It just doesn't seem like good leadership, and I think people expect better of President Obama and other world leaders."

And action from the developed world doesn't mean just cutting their own emissions. Just as important, rich countries need to spread clean energy technology — and money — around the world. Jennifer Morgan, of the Berlin think tank E3G, says that even China needs help with good, old, American know-how.

"The Chinese want to do things at a very large scale and very fast, and they are building an innovation economy. But their rates of innovation are much lower than ours are."

Independent of the international climate talks, the Obama adminsitration is starting to work with China directly to help push forward clean technologies. But that makes some in Congress nervous — after all, we're helping a major economic competitor.

So add this all up, and what do you get? A climate that can't tolerate much more carbon dioxide before the world gets dangerously hot, rich countries offering more rhetoric than action, and developing nations that say raising living standards is more important than cutting back on fossil fuels. Lieberthal says the net result is not good.

"I think it's going to be very, very hard to avoid a catastrophe, so I think anyone who looks very seriously at this issue has to say that the future looks very, very sobering."

And the way things are going right now, it seems highly unlikely that these issues can be resolved by December, which is when the next climate treaty is supposed to be completed.

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