IRA FLATOW, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.
A little bit later in the hour, we'll check in on this year's Christmas bird count and talk about the biggest science stories of the year.
But up first, the latest U.N. meeting convened to hash out a plan for dealing with global climate change; that wrapped up on Sunday, and then the charge to the delegates of Bali Climate Conference was to get started on a climate change plan that will pick up where the Kyoto Protocol leaves off. It's slated to end in the year 2012.
What was really accomplished at the meeting? Here to talk about it is Elliot Diringer, director of international strategies at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change in Arlington, Virginia. The center released its own framework for a climate plan that goes beyond the one-size-fits-all approach of Kyoto. Instead, it aims to be flexible enough to meet the needs of developing and developed countries and make real progress towards curbing emissions -something the Kyoto Protocol has not been able to do.
Our number 1-800-989-8255, if you'd like to talk about the climate change meeting.
Elliot Diringer joins me by phone from his office in Arlington. Welcome to the program.
Mr. ELLIOT DIRINGER (Director of International Strategies, Pew Center on Global Climate Change): Glad to be here, Ira.
FLATOW: Can you sum it up in 25 words or less?
Mr. DIRINGER: Well, it may take more than 25.
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Mr. DIRINGER: I think this was an encouraging step in agreement to begin a negotiating process toward a comprehensive new agreement. Two years ago, the countries could barely agree to initiate an informal dialogue about future actions, and they've moved past dialogue to negotiation. But this is a very loosely framed process. There was really very little agreed in terms of the scale of effort that's required or the types of actions that are going to be negotiated. Most of the tough issues were put off to be negotiated.
FLATOW: So it was a meeting to have another meeting?
Mr. DIRINGER: Well, yes.
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Mr. DIRINGER: Meeting to have several more meetings. I mean, they set a very ambitious goal of achieving an agreement on the new treaty in 2009, in just two years. That may not be realistic, but in - if they are going to be able to do it, it's going to require lots of meetings between now and then.
FLATOW: So nothing was - came out of this that required any countries to do anything new here.
Mr. DIRINGER: Other than to talk, that's right. I mean, this was a process decision. And that's really all that was expected going into Bali. We knew that that was the best we could hope for. And frankly, the nature of the decision we got, I think, was the best possible given the political moment and the constraint, the first of those being the position of the Bush administration. It could have been a worst outcome.
FLATOW: Yeah. Speaking of that, there was a very interesting column that Tom Freidman in the Times wrote about saying how shocked the delegations from around the world were to see that when the U.S. made its presentation, the technocrats, as they called them, showed they really understood the issues here, the science, the issues and the implications. And…
Mr. DIRINGER: Well…
FLATOW: But that the science was so far removed from the policy.
Mr. DIRINGER: Yeah, I mean the, you know, the administration often boasts of the fact that the U.S. has invested far more than any other country in the science and in technological research and all that's true. And we have lots and lots of people within the federal government who have a very sophisticated understanding of this issue. And the Bush administration itself has become much more sophisticated in its diplomatic approach. But it really has not shifted in terms of the fundamentals. And the administration remains opposed to the negotiation of binding international commitments and that's what we're going to need and that's what a lot of the debate in Bali was about.
FLATOW: And it basically shifts the burden from this country - for this country on to a new administration, does it not?
Mr. DIRINGER: Well, given that this process is going to wrap up at the soonest in late 2009, yes, absolutely. It will be a new administration that will be at the table. And that's probably for the good because I don't think we'd be able to achieve the kind of agreement we need with the Bush administration still in office.
FLATOW: Now the Pew Center that you belong to has a new report out that outlines how a new climate agreement might be structured. Would you go through that a bit with us?
Mr. DIRINGER: Sure. And this builds on a dialogue process that we convened with 25 people from around the world, the mix of people from government, business and civil society. And a core idea here is that we need all the major economies to engage in this next process. We need commitments from all the major economies, and that includes developed countries and some of the big developing countries as well, China and India.
But it recognizes that given the tremendous differences among those countries, they're going to have to adopt different types of strategies to address this issue. There are such huge differences in the types of economies. We have the resource bases, our policy cultures, and the policy that worked for one don't necessarily work for another. So the international framework needs to take that into account. It needs to accommodate different circumstances and strategies, and what that means is we need to have different types of commitments.
Kyoto uses just one type of commitment, a binding target on total emissions across your economy. And that's - there's a lot to be said for that approach and that's probably the way we should continue to go for developed countries. But we need to allow for different types of commitments for the developing countries.
FLATOW: So you might have a different set of rules for the - for China, for example?
Mr. DIRINGER: Yeah, and the idea that we've been exploring is what we call policy commitments. Instead of committing to a specific emissions level, a country like China might commit to implement policies that will have the effect of reducing their emissions. For instance, China already has in place, at the national level, a very ambitious energy-intensity goal for its economy to reduce its energy intensity, also renewable energy targets and fuel economy standards that are stricter than those here in the United States.
If China were to take those policies and commit to them at the international level, then that would be a legitimate form of commitment that we could count on, on delivering something.
FLATOW: Today, did they seem to be in agreement on this kind of approach?
Mr. DIRINGER: Well, I think actually one of the most significant things to emerge in Bali was a greater openness by the developing countries to start talking about stronger action on their part. They're not ready yet to embrace that commitment word, the decision talks about actions, measurable, reportable and verifiable actions. But that's the significant departure from where they've been historically. Up until now, the hard line from the developing countries has been no new commitments. And they weren't pushing that line, at least most of them. And that's not reflected in the decision here, so that, actually, was one of the most encouraging aspects.
FLATOW: Is there any sense that the clock is ticking on all of this? We had a report out last week that even if every country had met the Kyoto protocols, the oceans would become so acidic that they would not be able to support coral reefs anymore.
Mr. DIRINGER: Oh, I think there was a palpable sense in the negotiations of the urgency here. People very mindful of the latest report from the IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Al Gore delivered a speech fresh from receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, so people are very mindful of that. But we're dealing still with a sort of disconnect between the scientific urgency and the political realities, which still need to catch up.
FLATOW: Any influence - we had a change of administration in Australia, which they signed right on to the Kyoto, leaving, I think, the U.S. as the only industrialized country out of it.
Mr. DIRINGER: That's right, and that was one of the highlights of the conference when Kevin Rudd, the new prime minister of Australia, announced that they had ratified the Kyoto Protocol. And that lends further momentum to the push for a new agreement. And as you said, it does leave the U.S. further isolated. So I think, in the end, the U.S. is just going to face more and more pressure to come around.
FLATOW: Well, we know that none of these negotiations are happening fast enough to prevent many of the changes that already are taking place because of climate change. Are plans - some islands are going to be going under water because of the rising sea levels for example? Are there plans being made to help some of these most-at-risk countries deal with these changes?
Mr. DIRINGER: Well, another concrete outcome from Bali was an agreement on the adaptation funds that was created under the Kyoto Protocol. There had been lots of wrangling over how to manage that fund. They came to agreement on that so there will soon be resources available to vulnerable countries to help them prepare for the impacts of climate change. But the whole question of adaptation was - is very much central to the negotiations going forward. It's not just about reducing emissions, it's also about what kind of assistance can be provided by developed countries to the most vulnerable developing countries to help them cope with what - the impacts that, at this point, are unavoidable.
FLATOW: Uh-huh. Well, I want to thank you for taking time to be with us.
Mr. DIRINGER: Very welcome.
FLATOW: And have a great holiday season.
Mr. DIRINGER: Thanks, you too.
FLATOW: Elliot Diringer joined me by phone from Arlington, and he is the director of international strategies at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change in Arlington, Virginia.