Obama: Copenhagen's Breakthrough Deal Falls Short

President Obama is back in the U.S. after helping pull together a last-minute agreement at the climate change conference in Copenhagen. The president has said the deal is a breakthrough, but adds that it still falls short in some areas. Host Scott Simon talks to NPR's David Kestenbaum for more.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

President Obama arrived back in the snows of Washington, D.C. a little after 1:00 a.m. this morning after helping to broker a last-minute agreement on climate change at the U.N. talks in Copenhagen. Mr. Obama called the deal a breakthrough but also acknowledged it fell short of what was needed.

President BARACK OBAMA: Going forward, we're going to have to build on the momentum that we've established here in Copenhagen to ensure that international action to significantly reduce emissions is sustained and sufficient over time. We've come a long way but we have much further to go.

SIMON: NPR's David Kestenbaum is at the talks in Copenhagen. David, thanks very much for being with us.

DAVID KESTENBAUM: You're welcome.

SIMON: And outline this agreement if you could, please.

KESTENBAUM: Well, it is the first global agreement to deal with climate change. I think that's actually a fair statement. You know, we had the Kyoto accord, but this is the first time the largest emitters - the United States or China -have actually pledged to act.

And the agreement, I have it here - it's just a couple of pages - the main points are it sets as a goal that global temperatures should not rise more than two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. And it promises to set up a hundred-billion-dollar-a-year fund to help poorer and developing countries.

SIMON: And based on what you know so far, where does it fall short?

KESTENBAUM: Well, it falls short from what some people would hope for in a couple of ways. One is just that if you add up the pledges the countries have made, which is listed on one of the pages here, they're not enough to actually keep the temperature rise below two degrees. So it's sort of internally inconsistent.

And it's also just not just a binding legal agreement. You know, as international agreements go, this is a political agreement, it's the foundation for what they hope will become a legal binding agreement.

SIMON: So more a hope than a deal?

KESTENBAUM: A road map they would say, I think.

SIMON: And does it also depend, among other things, on what happens in the U.S. Senate?

KESTENBAUM: It does, and that's a key question that kept coming up here. You know, these countries are pledging to do something in part because the United States is pledging to do something. So if the U.S. doesn't, that could be a real problem. Although the argument has been made that now that there is this agreement on paper, the Senate may be more likely to agree to something because China is on board.

SIMON: Explain the process to us, if you could, David, 'cause we had the sensation really all week that stuff was just getting bogged down and there might not be any kind of road map to an agreement or whatever we're calling it.

KESTENBAUM: That's exactly right. And you know, watching this day after day after day, you realize how very, very hard it is for 193 countries to do anything. Because basically everyone has to agree. And the negotiators just got incredibly bogged down day after day after day. And no one was budging on their positions, there were near walkouts a couple of times.

But what was different about this meeting from other climate talks is that the heads of state came at the end - presidents and prime ministers. And at the end, it was a small group of them - President Obama, but also the heads of Brazil, China, India and South Africa, who just kind of took over and hammered things out in a much smaller group.

SIMON: And a lot of this boiled down to the United States and China working something out. And I wonder if you could remind us of their disagreements.

KESTENBAUM: The disagreement was this question of the U.S. wanted to say - how are we going to know that you, China, and everyone else, are doing what you're saying you're going to do to reduce greenhouse gas emissions? The U.S. wanted some way to verify, but the Chinese said, you know, it's not necessary for anyone to verify what we're going to do; we said we're going to do it, we're going to do it.

And this agreement, the drafts for a long time basically had this big blank spot in them at that one spot. It was this key thing. And now there's this very long sentence in there that it looks like it will allow for some degree of auditing of each country's reports. At least it was enough to satisfy - it was language that the U.S. and China could live with.

SIMON: And what did they do after President Obama departed - I gather openly saying I got to get back when my plane can still land?

KESTENBAUM: Yeah. He left because of the weather. There was a lot of drama after he left though. Most countries supported it, but at one point it looked like just four countries out of 193 opposed it. But in the end, after the sun came up, everyone had kind of exhausted themselves and it finally passed.

SIMON: NPR's David Kestenbaum in Copenhagen, thanks so much.

KESTENBAUM: You're welcome.

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