Gauging The Climate In Copenhagen

Scientists, policymakers, activists and skeptics from around the world have gathered in Denmark's capital to figure out how to deal with the threat of climate change. Elliot Diringer of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change describes the negotiations and the sticking points.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow.

Ms. LISA JACKSON (Environmental Protection Agency): The accumulation of CO2 and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere can lead to hotter, longer heat waves that threaten the health of the sick, the poor, the elderly. They can increase ground-level ozone pollution linked to asthma and other respiratory illnesses.

FLATOW: That's Lisa Jackson, head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Her announcement that greenhouse gases are a threat to public health came Monday, just as thousands of people from around the world were making their way to Copenhagen to talk climate change. And they've been at it, now, for almost a week. And joining us to fill us in on what's happening there is Elliot Diringer. He is vice president for international strategies at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change in Arlington, Virginia. He's talking with us today from Copenhagen. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Mr. ELLIOT DIRINGER (Pew Center on Global Climate Change): Thanks, Ira, good to be with you.

FLATOW: Nice to have you back. Is it possible to summarize for us what the main issues are, and what is being talked about at this point?

Mr. DIRINGER: Well, the issues are how you assemble countries in a meaningful framework that commits them to action. And at this moment, I think, Ira, I'd say that we're likely to get both more and less than we at the Pew Center had hoped for out of this conference. On the one hand, every major emitting country is coming to Copenhagen with an explicit pledge to curb its emissions.

The U.S. has put a provisional target on the table. China and India have put numbers on the table, and I wouldn't have predicted just a few weeks ago that we would have all that.

But at the same time, these are, at this stage, political commitments. What we need to do is convert them into legally binding commitments. And what we really hope to see here is some solid progress toward building the legal architecture that will accomplish that over the coming year. And at the moment, it's a little hard to say just how far we'll get on that piece.

FLATOW: So you're saying we may not have a treaty that comes out of this meeting.

Mr. DIRINGER: Oh, I think there's very little likelihood of actually having a treaty agreed here in Copenhagen. A few weeks ago, President Obama and a number of other leaders quite explicitly lowered expectations, saying we're not going to get that far. What we're aiming for here is a political agreement, an interim political agreement that hopefully, moves us much closer to a treaty.

FLATOW: There's been an argument going on that says, you know, the underdeveloped world can't pay for some of the kinds of things that the developed countries can. Has there been any movement on helping to fund those underdeveloped countries and pick up some of the load for them?

Mr. DIRINGER: Part of the deal here will be some money in the near term, between now and 2012. The number that's been floated is on the order of $10 billion a year. President Obama has talked about ramping up to $10 billion in 2012. So I'm pretty confident that if we have a deal, it will include money on that scale in that time frame, but I think that we're going to have to continue negotiating toward a longer-term arrangement to provide the much greater flows that are needed to help developing countries both get their acts together in terms of reducing their emissions but also for the - especially for the most poor and vulnerable countries - helping them adapt to the impacts of climate change.

FLATOW: We played a clip of Lisa Jackson, the new administrator for the EPA, and she issued a statement on Monday, saying that carbon dioxide is a threat to public health. Is that factoring into the discussion over there at all?

Mr. DIRINGER: The fact of the endangerment finding by the U.S., I mean, I think people have taken note of it. I think those of us who are Americans are pleased to be able to say that our government has now officially recognized that fact. And I think for the Obama administration, it's another piece of evidence that they are doing their best to move forward on the issue.

But materially, I don't think it's really changing the dynamic here, because everyone understands that for the U.S. to really be in a position to commit itself, we need some legislation through Congress and hopefully, we'll see that next year.

FLATOW: Give us an idea of what the flavor of the meeting is like. I was at the first one, back in 19 - I think - 74, at the first U.N. conference in Stockholm.

Mr. DIRINGER: Yeah.

FLATOW: And it was part, you know, trade fair, part demonstrators, part working, part all kinds of pieces in there - like a be-in or a happening, as we said back in the '70s.

Mr. DIRINGER: It's all of that and more, and I mean, maybe the best way to describe it is semi-controlled chaos. I mean, there is, in fact, a negotiation taking place here. The negotiation itself is very disaggregated. I mean, you have multiple issues being negotiated simultaneously in different rooms, some of them open to observers, some of them not open, some of them with all parties represented, some of them with a few, and a constant round of bilateral meetings between governments.

But most of the people here aren't negotiators, and a lot of them are working to get their message out, back-to-back press conferences, all sorts of presentations. I mean, it's part academic conference, spontaneous little protests breaking out, all manner of proselytizing, and lots of people just milling around in the hallways trying to find out what's going on.

Because this negotiation is so disaggregated, the reality is that at any given moment, no one - really no one - has the complete picture of where things stand. So you have to pump people for information as best you can.

FLATOW: Is that going to gel a little bit before the end of the meeting?

Mr. DIRINGER: It has to. I mean, you know, generally things come together at the end. In this case, you know, we have more than 100 heads of state coming. So there's real pressure on these negotiators to get a deal together. These heads of state don't want to arrive and find out they don't have a deal to bless.

So I'm confident we'll have an agreement. I'm not yet confident how strong an agreement it will be, and whether it's going to create that clear path toward the final legal agreement we need.

FLATOW: Right. Is President Obama slated to show up?

Mr. DIRINGER: Yes, every expectation at this point is that he'll be here on the final day of the conference next Friday.

FLATOW: So he's going home first and then coming back.

Mr. DIRINGER: Yes, that's my understanding.

FLATOW: Would have been just a hop, skip and a jump, right, over from. -

Mr. DIRINGER: Well, his original plan was to come here on his way to Oslo, but that plan changed. I mean, I think there was some pressure from other governments, heads of state. They wanted him here at the end. You know, I think symbolically, that counts for a lot with a lot of people, and it will be a pretty momentous occasion.

FLATOW: All right, Elliot, thank you for taking time - staying up to join us today.

Mr. DIRINGER: Happy to be with you, and happy Hanukkah, Ira.

FLATOW: Thank you, you, too. Elliot Diringer is vice president for international strategies at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change in Arlington, Virginia.

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