At Climate Meeting, Tensions Rise Between Rich And Poor Nations

At the United Nations climate talks in Warsaw, Poland, conflict between rich and poor nations is mounting. The developing world wants large sums of money to help them adapt to climate change. The U.S. and Europe say they're doing what they can to help but times are tough.

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NPR's Richard Harris has covered the U.N. climate talks since the first treaty was negotiated in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. He's monitoring these new talks, and he joins us now to talk about this long-running argument over climate-related funding for the developing world. Richard, thanks for being here.

RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: My pleasure.

BLOCK: And we just heard Mr. Khan mention this goal of $100 billion in aid per year, starting in 2020. He thinks that's realistic. What does it look like from where you sit?

HARRIS: Well, it's an idea that actually came out of the Copenhagen climate talks in 2009. And this number was actually put forward by the rich countries of the world. But they also said this is not money that's going to come directly out of our treasuries. This is money that we would somehow or other leverage from private industry as well. And exactly what that means is still really uncertain. But one idea that's kicked around is, for example, putting a tax on aviation fuel and shipping fuel as a way of raising that kind of money. So it's not completely out of the question.

But there are also some strings attached to that promise, which is that the money would also be contingent on having meaningful action from countries all around the world, which would certainly include China, India and other major emitters, not just the rich countries.

BLOCK: And China, which you mentioned, is now the world's greatest emitter of greenhouse gases, right?

HARRIS: Yeah, that's right. They outstripped us about a decade ago.

BLOCK: Richard, we mentioned briefly the U.S. position on this. What more can you tell us about where the U.S. stands on compensation for loss and damage due to climate change?

HARRIS: Well, the United States has acknowledged that the rich nations do have a responsibility to the poor. The head of the U.S. delegation, Todd Stern, said at a news conference in Warsaw on Monday that it's not quite so simple to say that we caused the whole problem, so we're now financially responsible for all of climate change.

TODD STERN: The notion of responsibility is obviously an important one. But the notion of responsibility has got to be based on historic emissions, absolutely, current emissions and the future emissions that you're locking into your system by the energy infrastructure that you're building. All of those things have to do with the fate of the planet.

HARRIS: And I might add that about half of all carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has come from the developing world. That includes coal burning in China and deforestation in Indonesia and Brazil. And emissions there are growing sharply while emissions from the U.S. and Europe are actually slowly declining. So there's not only a lot of blame to spread around but if we're going to rein in global warming, we can't possibly do that without making major changes all around the world.

BLOCK: And how do the other developing countries feel about that?

HARRIS: Well, it's a real point of tension because many still feel they deserve special treatment because their economies are still struggling to come up to U.S. standards and getting to that point is their highest priority right now. China does acknowledge that climate change is a serious issue. They even have a small carbon tax. But at this point, they're planning a fairly slow response, and they've not felt a responsibility to help compensate countries like Bangladesh that could be harmed by climate change in the meantime.

BLOCK: Richard, we mentioned you have been covering talks such as this for more than 20 years. Does it strike you that there is an opportunity here for some real progress, or are you not so optimistic?

HARRIS: Well, it's hard to be optimistic. They're trying to plan ahead for a new treaty that would take force in 2020. Almost nobody believes that that treaty would be strong enough to really slow down global warming. So at least everyone is talking about this and acknowledging this as a real issue and there are small changes around the margins. But sort of getting to that world where we don't have to talk about climate change, that's a long way away.

BLOCK: OK. NPR's Richard Harris. Richard, thanks so much.

HARRIS: OK.

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