Obama: Danger Of Climate Change Grows

The clock is winding down on the climate conference in Copenhagen, and there is no deal on the table. President Obama told the gathering that while nothing gets done, "the danger of climate change grows until it is irreversible."

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

The clock is winding down on the climate conference in Copenhagen, with no deal on the table. President Obama flew into Copenhagen this morning and went straight to an emergency meeting with 19 other world leaders. He told the conference that climate change poses, quote, "a grave and growing danger to the world."

President BARACK OBAMA: The question, then, before us is no longer the nature of the challenge. The question is our capacity to meet it. For while the reality of climate change is not in doubt, I have to be honest: As the world watches us today, I think our ability to take collective action is in doubt right now, and it hangs in the balance.

MONTAGNE: President Obama, speaking in Copenhagen. At this hour, it's not exactly clear what, if anything, the talks will produce. Let's bring NPR science correspondent Richard Harris. He's at the climate conference. And Richard, tell us more about that emergency meeting.

RICHARD HARRIS: Well, Renee, world leaders arrived here hoping that their ministers and secretaries of state would have come up with a deal for them to sign, but no such luck. So Mr. Obama retreated with representatives from China, Russia, U.K. and a bunch of other countries, including Bangladesh, to see if they could reach some sort of an accord. After that meeting, though, it didn't look very good. China's Premier Wen Jiabao and President Obama gave speeches making it clear they'd not been able to resolve the biggest conflict which is between those two nations. Here's the president saying, essentially, that today is our last chance. Otherwise...

Pres. OBAMA: We will be back having the same stale arguments month after month, year after year, perhaps decade after decade, all while the danger of climate change grows until it is irreversible.

HARRIS: You can tell the tone of that is not very happy.

MONTAGNE: And what are the specifics that these nations are still arguing over?

HARRIS: Well, the central sticking point is will China allow the world to monitor its emissions, which could be key to bringing them into a binding, international treaty. China says it still deserves special treatment as a developing country and shouldn't be held to the same standard as the world's rich nations, even though by now it is the world's leading emitter of carbon dioxide. But Mr. Obama said an international agreement that doesn't find a way to confirm that people are living up to their promises is a hollow document.

MONTAGNE: Well, this is, again, the last day of this meeting in Copenhagen. What are the prospects for an agreement?

HARRIS: Well, at this point, it doesn't look too good. I must say that there are reports that China and the United States are still talking, still hoping to make a deal. But they've been arguing about this for almost two decades, and they have not been able to resolve this issue. So whether they can resolve it today, that would be rather remarkable. I wandered around in the halls after the talks, and there were a lot of long faces in the halls. It seemed like people expected this morning's emergency meeting and then the speeches that followed were really the best chance for an agreement, and that didn't happen.

So at this point, it's not even clear if the world leaders would accept sort of a vague declaration from the meeting, just so that they can say that it accomplished something here in Copenhagen. Some leaders said, you know, what's the point of doing that? It - you know, we actually really need to get action. We need to get something that works much better than that.

MONTAGNE: Well, take us back, just momentarily, to the beginning. What was supposed to come out of these talks?

HARRIS: Well, when this talk was first proposed two years ago, it was actually supposed to end up with a binding treaty of some sort, sort of follow in to the Kyoto Protocol. Key parts of that expire in the year 2012. But over the course of the last couple years, it's been evident that there was not enough time to negotiate a follow in to Kyoto, and so they sort of fell back to a position saying, well, let's at least have some sort of political declaration, some really strong stand that was - would be politically binding that would say here's how we intend to move forward. And the hope was then to go back and negotiate that new treaty next year. And there are still people in the back rooms trying to make that happen, working on documents and adding square brackets, removing square brackets, doing all of these complicated diplomatic things that people do to try to agree on common language. But at this point...

MONTAGNE: Right. And if there is no agreement at Copenhagen, what then?

HARRIS: Well, it would obviously be big blow to world efforts to act collectively on global warming. But it's also true that has been a lot of progress in recent months, as countries have prepared for this meeting. China, India, Brazil and other countries announced very ambitious - and I might add voluntary - plans for controlling their own emissions - not reducing them, but at least holding them in check a little bit, slowing the rate of their growth. Legislation has been moving to the U.S. Congress that could potentially put the U.S. track for steep reductions. Europe has pledged deeper cuts. So even without an international pact - which, of course, most people really want here - at least people can say the conference has stirred significant actions.

MONTAGNE: Richard, thanks very much. NPR's science correspondent Richard Harris, speaking to us from the climate conference in Copenhagen.

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