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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

When countries convene for the Bali climate change talks, James Connaughton will be part of the U.S. delegation. He's chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Welcome to the program, Mr. Connaughton.

Mr. JAMES CONNAUGHTON (Chairman, U.S. Council on Environmental Quality): Thanks. My great pleasure.

BLOCK: President Bush said this in 2001. He said no one can say with any uncertainty what constitutes a dangerous level of warming and therefore what level must be avoided. Is that still his view or has there been any movement on that?

Mr. CONNAUGHTON: Well, it's not so much the president's view, it's the scientific community has not come to a statement of certainty yet on that point.

BLOCK: So he would…

Mr. CONNAUGHTON: But again, that kind of moves - you know, we can continue to sort of do orbit around the science issue, but the fact of the matter is there's global consensus that urgent action is required. And so, we know enough to make a substantial effort to bring this - you know, first we got to stop the growth of the emissions and then we've got to, you know, bring them down. You know, the president has committed the nation to that course.

BLOCK: You said urgent action is required. I wanted you to comment on the remarks from the U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon who, when he came back from visiting Antarctica, said, I believe we are on the verge of a catastrophe if we do not act.

Mr. CONNAUGHTON: The - there's two things that we look at on the science front. One is you have the gradual increase in temperature that's projected to occur over time. Then you have the issue of the potential for a significant change - a catastrophic change. And so, you know, all policymakers sort of look at this from an insurance perspective. How much should we be investing now to make the progress we can make today, and then what is it we can do to dramatically achieve emission reduction to an economically sustainable way over the long term? And if coal is about 50 percent of the future problem, we have to find an affordable alternative to producing power from coal with low carbon. And if we don't do that - and we don't do that relatively quickly - then other incremental efforts will not have that much of an effect.

BLOCK: Would you say that we're on the verge of a catastrophe?

Mr. CONNAUGHTON: I would say that we know enough about the science to commit ourselves to aggressive and urgent action.

BLOCK: These talks in Bali where you're headed next month are aimed at coming up with the successor agreement to the Kyoto protocol, and many say there has to be a new agreement by the end of 2009. Do you support that deadline?

Mr. CONNAUGHTON: President Bush clearly called early this year for advancing negotiations in Bali with the aim of achieving a new agreement by the end of 2009. And there are others that are questioning 2009 as a viable date, we think that we can and should move that fast. There'll still be a lot of negotiations to follow, but, you know, our hope is to set a really solid foundation of the key elements of what the framework could look like.

BLOCK: And for the countries who say, where have you been? We signed on to Kyoto, we've implemented it, and you were not there. What do you say to them?

Mr. CONNAUGHTON: Well, actually, Kyoto itself merely set targets for individual countries, but it did not set out implementation pathways. The United States has dedicated the last seven years to setting out clear international implementation pathways.

BLOCK: But the symbolism of the U.S. rejecting that accord and not implementing it is significant, no?

Mr. CONNAUGHTON: Well, I think the symbolism's even greater if we accept an accord that we know that the target we were given is impossible to achieve. And that was the central dilemma facing the U.S. There are some countries that were given targets that allowed them to continue to grow their emissions and were easily obtainable. The U.S. and a handful of other countries, you know, accepted targets that were technically and economically impossible.

I think that was a judgment made by the prior administration, too, by the way, which never sent the treaty to send for ratification because they couldn't get the additional flexibility into it that they tried to negotiate for three years.

BLOCK: Mr. Connaughton, you were in the Oval Office for the meeting between Al Gore and President Bush. Can you give us some sense of how far apart those two men are in their views of climate change?

Mr. CONNAUGHTON: Well, they both agree that it's a serious issue. They both agree that urgent action is required. If you look at what both of them has said in their speeches, they pressed a strong emphasis on bringing forward the transformative technology that makes a lasting solution possible. I think the president has made an added stress on nuclear power, which is an existing technology that has no emissions. But what I find most interesting is, in terms of the bundle of things we need to do, there's much more alignment than disagreement.

BLOCK: Al Gore, of course, in the past, has said that the administration has been dragging its feet on this issue. It's not been taking the lead.

Mr. CONNAUGHTON: Well, there is an issue about differences in policy choice. But that's not between the vice president and President Bush. I mean, that's a bipartisan set of questions of how far can you go, how fast? And I'm just delighted as the guy who does policy that those are the hard questions that we're now confronting rather than, you know, this continuum debate over the science.

BLOCK: Mr. Connaughton, thanks very much for talking with us today.

Mr. CONNAUGHTON: Thank you so much.

BLOCK: James Connaughton is chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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