NPR logo

Climate Change Conference Begins

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/121170881/121171279" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Climate Change Conference Begins

Environment

Climate Change Conference Begins

Climate Change Conference Begins

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/121170881/121171279" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

The climate talks opened Monday in Copenhagen, with more than 190 nations represented. The U.S. and China have pledged some actions already, but negotiators so far haven't even agreed about what the overall deal will look like.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And NPR's David Kestenbaum is headed to Copenhagen later this week. Today, he watched the first day of the climate talks from Washington.

DAVID KESTENBAUM: The conference opened with a video of children from around the world asking delegates to please do something about global warming. But, really, this is about the only point everyone agrees on. Climate change is bad. Lars Lokke Rasmussen is Denmark's prime minister.

Mr. LARS LOKKE RASMUSSEN (Prime Minister, Denmark): Global warming knows no borders. It does not discriminate. It affects us all. And we are here today because we are all committed to take action.

KESTENBAUM: It can be hard enough when two countries are trying to negotiate something. At these talks, there are delegates from over 190 countries. And if you let each of them talk for an hour, that would take up a week - half the conference. So, delegates kept their statements short today, usually saying we are committed to combating climate change, then following up with what amounted to the but.

Unidentified Man #1: I now give the floor to the Russian Federation.

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

KESTENBAUM: The Russian delegate - in the grand U.N. tradition, no one introduced themselves - the Russian delegate argued that any agreement had to be legally binding. This is actually one of the big sticking points. Why does Russia care? One reason is financial. Russia has a lot of allowances to emit carbon left over from the Kyoto climate agreement and it wants to sell them for as much as possible. If countries are legally bound to reduce their carbon emissions, those permits could be worth a lot of money. In fact, most of the disagreements, they're all about money.

(Soundbite of applause)

Unidentified Man #1: Thank you. I give the floor to Bolivia.

Unidentified Man #3: (Foreign language spoken)

KESTENBAUM: Developing countries like Bolivia are arguing, hey, the global warming problem, you in the developed world made it. So, to solve it, you're going to have to give us money to adapt and to keep our emissions down as we grow. The number floating around right now for that financial assistance is $10 billion a year. Bolivia, through an interpreter, called that absolutely insufficient.

Unidentified Man #3: (Through translator) Much more is needed if we take into account the fact that to say if the Washington stock exchange and the global banks trillions of dollars have been spent and in the war budgets, greater figures are spent also.

KESTENBAUM: Every country is trying to get the best deal possible. Tajikistan pointed out that its glaciers are melting. Guatemala said its rain forest could disappear. The Solomon Islands representative said his country could disappear under water, a point he's made at climate talks before.

Unidentified Man #4: We know that the world is watching in Copenhagen. It is watching even more than Bonn, more than Bangkok and more than Barcelona.

KESTENBAUM: If there is optimism that there will be meaningful progress this time, it's in part because the big players are putting specific targets on the table for reducing their own emissions. Jonathan Pershing represents the world's second largest emitter of greenhouse gases: the United States.

Mr. JONATHAN PERSHING (Deputy Special Envoy for Climate Change): We all recognize that we are collectively engaged in a critical undertaking. Let there be no mistake, it is one to which the United States is fully committed. It is an undertaking which we believe will succeed if we put in the hard work this week and next. We are ready.

KESTENBAUM: The final speaker was the world's largest emitter: China. China has pledged to slow the growth of its emissions.

Unidentified Woman: This plan of option put forward by China is motivated for our responsible attitude towards the future of mankind. To reach this target, it requires China to make arduous and very painful efforts.

KESTENBAUM: Some climate scientists have been trying to figure out what all these pledges amount to. And the answer seems to be: not enough. Global temperatures might still rise three and a half degrees by the end of the century.

David Kestenbaum, NPR News.

NORRIS: And to get an idea of what a temperature increase like that might mean for some countries, go to npr.org.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

For Public, Climate Change Not A Priority Issue

For Public, Climate Change Not A Priority Issue

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/121105095/121146823" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
An iceberg melts in Kulusuk, Greenland. i

An iceberg melts in Kulusuk, Greenland, near the Arctic Circle in this 2005 photo. Skepticism over global warming has been growing, and according to a recent Harris Poll, barely half of the American public believes that the carbon dioxide building up in the atmosphere could warm our planet. John McConnico/AP hide caption

toggle caption John McConnico/AP
An iceberg melts in Kulusuk, Greenland.

An iceberg melts in Kulusuk, Greenland, near the Arctic Circle in this 2005 photo. Skepticism over global warming has been growing, and according to a recent Harris Poll, barely half of the American public believes that the carbon dioxide building up in the atmosphere could warm our planet.

John McConnico/AP

Nearly 100 world leaders are expected to appear at the global warming talks that open Monday in Copenhagen. This is an unprecedented showing of leadership for the issue. Yet at the same time, public opinion of climate change is souring — particularly in the United States.

A recent Harris Poll, among the latest of several over the past year, shows that barely half of the American public believes that the carbon dioxide that's building up in the atmosphere could warm up our planet.

There are multiple reasons for this growing skepticism, including psychological reactions and politics. Anthony Leiserowitz of the Yale University School of Forestry puts one reason above all the rest: "First of all, it's the economy, stupid."

People can only worry about so many issues at one time, he says. So it's no surprise they worry about issues that hit closest to home.

"And the economy is still by far the No. 1 concern of Americans, which just pushes all other issues off the table."

Climate A Low Priority

In a poll by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, climate comes in dead last, No. 20 of the 20 big issues of concern to America. But that doesn't completely explain why a number of recent polls show that people are less and less likely to accept the science of global warming. Here's where psychology comes in.

Even as scientists become more confident that climate change is a serious hazard, public opinion is shifting the other way, says Kari Marie Norgaard at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash.

"This seems irrational," she says. "And in that sense, it's challenging the basic premise that we have of an enlightened, democratic, modern society."

Norgaard studied this shift in public opinion and found that as people start to feel overwhelmed by the scope of the problem, they simply turn away from the topic. It's a form of denial, she says.

"We just don't want to know about it, so we are actively distancing ourselves from it or trying to protect ourselves from it."

That implies that some of the swing in public opinion can actually be explained as a reaction to growing public awareness of the issue, like Al Gore's movie An Inconvenient Truth, or the 2007 United Nations science report.

A Loud Minority

But psychology isn't the whole answer, either. Leiserowitz's opinion research shows that there's a relatively small but active group of people who have decided that climate change is a phony issue.

"The people who are pretty skeptical about whether this is even an issue to worry about, they're pretty mobilized right now," he says, "and they're amplifying their message across the country."

Right now, they're having a field day with the e-mails stolen from climate scientists. Skeptics have taken some suspicious-sounding statements in those e-mails as proof that climate change is a hoax. That's certainly not the view of mainstream scientists, but again, the public doesn't necessarily listen to scientists.

People trying to stir up doubt about climate change aren't working in a vacuum, says Tim Wirth, a former Democratic senator who now runs the United Nations Foundation. There's a large and well-funded effort to block legislation that could hurt the industries most responsible for carbon emissions.

"Where does that money come from?" he asks. "Well, it comes in part, sometimes in large part, from the very industries whose ox is going to get gored if there's aggressive climate legislation. So that gets increasingly difficult on Capitol Hill."

The Effect Of Public Opinion

The ultimate question is: How important is public opinion in the fight over climate change legislation?

"I don't think any place in the world would you find the public demanding [climate legislation]. I think it's very hard to see the public demand anything. That's very rare," Wirth says.

What does matter is the influence of the naysayers. And they don't need a majority voice to make a big difference.

So proponents of action on climate change — both on Capitol Hill and in the White House — have tried to build public support for climate issues by actually not talking about global warming. Instead, they are framing their actions in terms of green jobs and energy security.

Leiserowitz says that's a good strategy. He's found that the public is leery of regulations to control global warming. But, he adds, "When you ask a question like, 'Would you support a system that supports rebates for solar panels or people who buy fuel-efficient cars,' everybody likes that idea."

Questions like that get positive responses in the 90 percent range, he says. "That's a higher [percentage] than likes apple pie, or their own mother, probably," he said, only half-kidding.

So the question ultimately may not hinge on whether the public is deeply concerned about global warming, but how expensive and disruptive it turns out to be to address it.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.