Massive Climate Change Huddle Wraps In Copenhagen. Now What?

Host Michel Martin speaks with Kate Brash, assistant director of the Columbia Climate Center at Columbia University, for the latest developments from the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference. The meeting of representatives from 193 nations is almost over.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, we talk with a juvenile justice expert who's made a big splash in the nation's capital and now is moving on to New York. We'll talk with him about his provocative ideas in a few minutes, and we'll talk about one lawmaker's effort to put immigration back on the policy front burner. But first, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has made a major pronouncement in Copenhagen today. Here it is.

Secretary HILLARY CLINTON (Department of State): The United States is prepared to work with other countries toward a goal of jointly mobilizing $100 billion a year by 2020 to address the climate change needs of developing countries.

MARTIN: So yes, this is big news, but given how long this process has gone on and how complicated it is, we realize that many people might still be wondering what on earth the secretary is talking about. What exactly are all these people doing in Copenhagen? What are they trying to achieve, and why does it matter? In a few minutes, we'll dig further into the question of just why the world's affluent countries would commit this large sum to the developing world. But first, for a simple explanation of what's going on in Copenhagen, we called Kate Brash. She's the assistant director of the Columbia Climate Center of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. She's the coauthor of "Climate Change: A Reference Handbook," and she joins from NPR's bureau in New York. Kate, thanks so much for joining us.

Ms. KATE BRASH (Assistant Director, Columbia Climate Center, Earth Institute): Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So, what is going on in Copenhagen right now and why?

Ms. BRASH: What's going on in Copenhagen right now is a U.N. meeting to try to arrive at a new set of rules to govern the emission of carbon dioxide, which most scientists believe is contributing to changes in the climate.

MARTIN: Why does it seem that we're paying more attention to this conference than previous ones that people will have heard of? A lot of people have heard about Kyoto. A lot of people will have heard about a conference in Rio.

Ms. BRASH: Right.

MARTIN: Am I right, that this one seems to be getting more attention that previous ones? It seems larger, more people are participating.

Ms. BRASH: Yup.

MARTIN: Why is that?

Ms. BRASH: That's because in 2007, this group of countries that is a party to the current climate treaty decided as a group that this year would be their deadline to come up with a new set of obligations for them to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

MARTIN: Why this year?

Ms. BRASH: It's a little bit arbitrary, but it's because the Kyoto Protocol, which contains the actual emission reductions percentages, expires in 2012. So they thought by 2009, we better have decided what we need to do in the years after 2012.

MARTIN: What is the role of the U.S. in this conference? What's our stake in Copenhagen? What are we doing?

Ms. BRASH: We are a party to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, which is the basic treaty, and we are not a party to the Kyoto Protocol. The reason that we aren't part of Kyoto is because we did not want to agree to reduce our emissions unless developing countries - particularly rapidly developing countries like China - also agreed. And at this point, in this meeting, that hasn't yet happened. And it hasn't happened through the history of the negotiations to this point. So that's the major sticking point, and the Obama administration clearly wants to commit to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions and shoulder its weight in protecting the climate, but it's a very dicey political move for the Obama administration. It's a fine line that they have to walk.

MARTIN: Why?

Ms. BRASH: In order for the U.S. to ratify a treaty, the Senate has to vote to do that. And the balancing of political priorities is very delicate. The Senate rejected the Kyoto Protocol because of the refusal of China and India and other developing - large, rapidly developing countries to accept emissions targets. We need to...

MARTIN: So we're saying, if they won't, we won't, either.

Ms. BRASH: Yes. And China is now saying we will not accept these binding reductions because you guys, the Western industrialized countries -particularly the U.S. - are responsible for most of the carbon emissions that have happened to this point and their impacts.

MARTIN: So, how does an agreement get reached in this kind of environment? Is there really a sense that an agreement is possible this year?

Ms. BRASH: At this point, most of the observers are thinking that it's much more likely that any kind of binding legal commitments will come next year. If you can get agreement on an overall sort of vision of what needs to be accomplished, that would be a really important step, whether or not it included legal commitments for the parties at this point.

MARTIN: So, finally, the conference ends on Friday.

Ms. BRASH: Yes.

MARTIN: Is it likely to have been viewed by the people who believe that climate change is real and believe that greenhouse gases are largely responsible and want to see the emissions of greenhouse gases controlled - by those people who have that point of view, and we recognize that it's not universal.

Ms. BRASH: Right.

MARTIN: Is this conference going to be viewed as a success or as making progress toward that goal?

Ms. BRASH: I think it will be viewed as having made progress. And I think there's really no denying that whether you look at the announcement by the United States, the announcement by China which came before this conference but would not have happened without the deadline. And without the momentum created by that deadline, lots of people will say, you know, oh, nothing's happened. It will never happen in enough time to actually have the impacts that we need on carbon emissions. You know, I think, though, that everyone has an interest in sort of embracing the progress that has been made, and I think that's what the sort of message coming out of it will be.

MARTIN: Kate Brash is assistant director of the Columbia Climate Center at Columbia University. She's coauthor of "Climate Change: A Reference Handbook," and she joined us from NPR's bureau in New York. Kate, thank you so much.

Ms. BRASH: Thank you.

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