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The United Nations climate treaty talks ended this past weekend in Poland with a familiar result - near failure. China and India said they will not commit to controlling their carbon emissions. The growth in pollution from those two countries effectively cancels out U.S. carbon reductions, which has led some to ask a question: Why do we even bother? NPR's Richard Harris put that question to some of the world's leading climate strategists.

RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: California is home to the nation's most ambitious climate change policy and it's also home to some of the most prominent academic thinkers on this subject. Take, for example, Catherine Wolfram. She's an economics professor and co-director of the Energy Institute at the Haas Business School at UC, Berkeley. She nods knowingly when I ask a question she's heard many times before.

If you look at many of the projections for global energy use, they are going to be skyrocketing in the next couple of decades, and the question then becomes why should we even try if we know that the rest of the world is not going to limit its emissions? Why should we inflict pain on ourselves?

CATHERINE WOLFRAM: That's a great question. If you look at the numbers, they suggest that, you know, a whole year of California reductions is wiped away in one week of Chinese growth.

HARRIS: Looked at that way, it seems futile to try. But Wolfram says what if we could set an example that made renewable energy appealing to China and other rapidly growing economies.

WOLFRAM: We haven't shown this yet, the hope is that we will show it eventually, but they need to see that you can produce low-carbon energy cheaply.

HARRIS: A tall order. But if you ask Daniel Kammen, it's within reach. He's a professor of energy and nuclear engineering and his office is on the Berkley campus just down the hill from Wolfram's. He argues that China isn't simply ignoring climate change.

DANIEL KAMMEN: China already has a carbon price and the U.S. does not.

HARRIS: That carbon price would be paid by companies who emit carbon dioxide. It's a small figure, 2 to 8 dollars a ton. That's not nearly enough to deter companies from polluting. But Kammen says just look at China's toxic air and it's obvious they have other motivations to reduce emissions.

KAMMEN: China is already paying a very high price for its fossil fuel diet and sees every motivation to ramp that amount of pollution down. That's why China has become the world's leader in production of solar panels, wind turbines, batteries for electric vehicles.

HARRIS: Those clean technologies still provide a tiny sliver of China's energy, but the country is at least positioned for a transition. I took the question across the bay and posed it to Sally Benson, who is director of the global climate and energy project at Stanford University.

SALLY BENSON: Certainly there are reasons you do it for the good of the world, but you also do it as a risk management.

HARRIS: And here Benson is talking both economic and environmental risk.

BENSON: I think there will come a day when it will become so clear that we need to do this right away, that I think that those countries that haven't prepared themselves really put themselves at much greater economic risk.

HARRIS: There is a cost for this kind of insurance. Benson says the amount of money we invest in energy infrastructure would gradually double, but in her mind it's worth it. Finally, I turn to Chris Field, who is the director of the Carnegie Institution's Department of Global Ecology, which is on the Stanford campus.

He argues that the United States is such a powerful economic force that actions here can actually change what happens in other industrial countries.

CHRIS FIELD: For example, if the United States had a price on carbon, they could easily add that price at the border if a country didn't also charge its price internally.

HARRIS: Field wants the price of a product to reflect its environmental cost. You'd pay for the carbon dioxide that ended up in the atmosphere when the product is built. And if China doesn't add that to the price of, say, and iPhone, the U.S. could do that with a tax at the border, and that money would go into the U.S. Treasury.

But Field also makes a more philosophical argument, one based on doing the right thing.

FIELD: Personally, I believe that we are close to an era in which if a nation wants to be regarded as a leading country in the international scene, they'll recognize that this is one of the things you need to do.

HARRIS: So in sum, if places like California can show that clean energy won't break the bank, these four prominent thinkers say action in the United States could lead to action in the rest of the world, where it matters most. Richard Harris, NPR News.

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