Climate Change Slow Going In Copenhagen

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The U.N. climate talks in Copenhagen made little visible progress this past week on a treaty to combat global warming. Host Liane Hansen speaks with NPR's David Kestenbaum, who is in Copenhagen covering the conference.


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

The U.N. climate talks in Copenhagen made little visible progress this past week on a treaty to combat global warming. NPR's David Kestenbaum is in Copenhagen and he joins us now. David, give us a sense of what's going on at the talks.

DAVID KESTENBAUM: Well, unfortunately, a lot of what's going on at the talks is behind closed doors and sometimes you're not even sure which doors. Yesterday, things spilled outside of the conference center and onto the street. There was a large rally estimated at 40,000 people. Police detained some people, but by and large it was very peaceful.

I was out in the street last night at the end of the rally talking to a small group of people standing around a fire they had built. They were burning their protest signs. One of the signs that still remained red: There is no Planet B, meaning this is the one we have, let's take care of it.

HANSEN: What have been the sticking points in the negotiations?

KESTENBAUM: They're basically the same points that people have been wrestling with forever - that fixing the climate is not free. It's going to impose some kind of economic cost and basically we're just trying to work out how to split up that cost. That turns out to be very, very difficult. And the biggest divide is between the rich and the poor countries of the world.

HANSEN: But China, India and Brazil have all pledged to slow the rate of growth of their emissions. Why isn't that enough for the United States?

KESTENBAUM: The United States wants binding agreements. In other words, they want these countries to write down on a piece of paper what they're going to do and make that part of the agreement. Todd Stern, the U.S. climate envoy here, he said it's not a matter of politics or morality or anything else, it's just math.

If you think about China - which you could call a developing country - it is the largest emitter in the world and most people there don't even have cars yet. So the U.S. wants to get them on paper saying this is what we're going to do, and we commit to it.

China and other developing countries, on the other hand, they'd like to stick with what was laid out in the Kyoto climate accord, which doesn't put any specific demands on them.

HANSEN: The European Union pledged, what, $10.6 billion this past week to help developing countries?


HANSEN: And the U.S. said it would do its "fair share" - that's in quotation marks. Does that help?

KESTENBAUM: It helps a little bit, but the Chinese delegate pointed out here that if you divide up the numbers being talked about for aid for a climate fund, it works out to about $2 a person on the planet. So, poor countries are saying they're going to need a lot of help if they're going to grow in a way that doesn't dump huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere.

And the numbers floating around are big: $100 billion a year, maybe $400 billion a year down the road. And at this point it's unclear where that money comes from. And until that question is resolved, a lot of the smaller countries are just, are not going to be very happy.

HANSEN: President Obama is headed to Copenhagen later this week, though, what do you expect from this week's talks?

KESTENBAUM: This is the way things go. You often have a lot of posturing in the few week behind the scenes. But it is unusual for the actual heads of state to come. That is a big deal. The problem for President Obama is that it's going to be hard for him to budge on a lot of these issues because he doesn't want to promise more than Congress is talking about doing. And at this point it's even unclear if Congress will pass a climate bill. But that said, they're going to be here. They're going to be giving talks, these leaders, and they want to be able to have something to say.

HANSEN: NPR's David Kestenbaum in Copenhagen. Thank you, David.

KESTENBAUM: You're welcome.

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