IRA FLATOW, host:
This is Talk of the Nation, Science Friday. I'm Ira Flatow. Later in the hour, hurricanes, global warming and the Greenland Ice Sheet. But first, with nine months to go in his presidency, President Bush has done what some law makers, states, and environmental groups have been demanding from much of his administration. Set a greenhouse gas emissions goal for the US. In his speech this week, the president set a target of 2025 for the US to stop the growth of greenhouse gas emissions. But he failed to lay out a concrete plan, or set mandatory requirements for achieving that goal. He leaves that task perhaps to the next president. Critics say the president's goal isn't progress toward cutting emissions, but actually, a step backwards. One of them is here to tell us why. Eileen Claussen is the president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change in Arlington, Virginia. She joins us from her office today. Welcome back to the program.
Ms. EILEEN CLAUSSEN (President, Pew Center on Global Climate Change, Arlington, Virginia): Well, thank you.
FLATOW: Why do you say this is a step backwards?
Ms. CLAUSSEN: Well, if you go back to 2002, the president, you know, speech on the Rose Garden did establish a voluntary goal on emissions. It would actually grow emissions by 2012, and now he is back in the Rose Garden, and saying that we will actually grow emissions till 2025 which is 17 years from now.
FLATOW: Uh-hm. And is it not a step at all, that he's actually said we should put a limit on the emissions here?
Ms. CLAUSSEN: I don't think so, because as I said, we've had voluntary goals from this administration before. There's nothing that says we actually have to meet them. And this is so far from what the science tells us we need to do, that I'm afraid, I don't think it is a step forward.
FLATOW: Uh-hm. What would you have liked to hear him say?
Ms. CLAUSSEN: Well, I think the president has to have a realistic view of what is happening in the United States. And I'm not sure that he does. There are 23 states working on mandatory caps on emission. There's a lot of activity in the Congress, and we will see some action on at least one bill. All three of the remaining presidential candidates support a mandatory cap and trade, with actually some fairly stringent limits. So, it's a little bit as if this is some otherworldly - it really doesn't have to do with what is going on in the United States or globally.
FLATOW: Uh-hm. And that legislation you're talking about is what?
Ms. CLAUSSEN: In the Senate, late last year, this - the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee passed a bill called the Lieberman-Warner bill, and which would set some fairly stringent targets, including having the U.S. get back to 1990 levels which is about, I think 17 percent less than where we are now by 2020. The bill came out of committee, and we believe that it will be debated on the floor of the Senate, in the first week in June.
Ms. CLAUSSEN: And in the house, there is a lot of effort now to draft a bill also, which would be coming out of the Energy in Congress Committee. So, we are seeing, I think significant activity, much more than we've ever seen before in the Congress.
FLATOW: Do these bills go anywhere near the goals set by the Europeans in their own countries?
Ms. CLAUSSEN: Well, it depends on how you look at it. The Europeans are already well below 1990 levels. And they are suggesting that they go to 20 percent, or perhaps even 30 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. But if you look at where they are, and where we are, the bills would have a similar level of effort, but because our emissions have grown, they do not appear to be as stringent as the Europeans' objective.
FLATOW: Uh-hm. Doesn't the IPCC say that worldwide emissions must peak by 2015 to prevent serious effects on the environment?
Ms. CLAUSSEN: Yes, well that's the point. If you take what the IPCC says, which I think, we would be advised to do.
Ms. CLAUSSEN: And emissions have to peak by 2015. There is no way that a developed country, like the United States, could grow emissions to 2025, which is what the president suggests. We should be reducing emissions by 2015, because some countries, those in the developing world, will probably still be growing theirs. So, I mean, that really is my main point about what the president said. It's as if the environmental objective suddenly doesn't matter.
FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number, also in Second Life. You can join our avatars over there. Sitting around and listening to Science Friday, asking questions. Dan in Kansas City. Hi, welcome Dan.
DAN (Caller): Hi, Ira. Another great show. Thanks.
FLATOW: Thank you.
DAN: My question is about removing the greenhouse gases we have already emitted from the atmosphere. I think reducing emissions is great and part of a holistic approach, but I never hear anyone talking about any work being done on how we could remove what we've produced over the last 200 years. Do you know of any work that's going on, on that front? Thanks, I'll take my answer off the air.
Ms. CLAUSSEN: Well, I mean - I think there are scientists who are looking to see whether that is possible and practical, but I don't think they have gotten very far. So, I think, it's not that it's not being looked at.
Ms. CLAUSSEN: I think the difference in looking at our emissions is, we actually know how to reduce a chunk of our emissions through relatively simple things, like improved energy efficiency. We're just not very efficient. And there is lots of opportunity there. We will need new technology, so this is not an effort that we can do in five years, or 10 years. But if we don't have a price on carbon, and we don't have some rules, let's say we have to do it. I don't see how that technology, which the president talks about, and which is a legitimate issue, will actually get into the marketplace.
FLATOW: And that to me is also very interesting, because the president has sort of a history of talking about what needs to be done. He knows what needs to be done, but he doesn't set the rules for them. I mean, in encouraging these things. He talks about switchgrass, a really interesting idea. When he was governor of Texas, Texas started to overtake California in wind energy. But when it gets down to getting the rest of the country going, he sort of sits back.
Ms. CLAUSSEN: I know, it's not as if for example, we would disagree with a lot of the technologies that he suggests need to be looked at, and deployed.
Ms. CLAUSSEN: It's not that, it's that we have to find a way to get them into the marketplace. And I don't think - it's not really - I guess, it's not really a question of if you build it, they will come. I mean - I think, we actually have to make sure that these things happen.
FLATOW: What about the big list? Did he mention anything is his speech about China, India, the smaller - they're not small anymore, but the developing countries needing to come on board, because it is true that if they don't take actions, even the actions we might take will be dwarfed by the emissions coming out of those countries.
Ms. CLAUSSEN: Yes, I think there's - he's right on that. We do have to make sure that at least the major developing countries are a part of any future treaty. I don't think we should expect them to do the same thing as we need to do. But they definitely need to be a part of it, and they have to turn down their projected emissions growth, because otherwise, the climate will be in serious trouble, no matter what we do. So that's certainly a legitimate point, but I have to say the reaction to the president's speech from other countries did not suggest that what he was suggesting would be enough to draw them to the table.
FLATOW: Explain a little further, if you could.
Ms. CLAUSSEN: Right now, well at least, actually it's now over, but yesterday, there was a major meeting in Paris of the 20 largest economies in the world to talk about this issue and what needs to be done. And after the president gave his speech, there were some very sharp reactions from a number of those countries, and I'll just give you a flavor. I mean, the German Minister, called it Bush's Neanderthal speech, an example not of leadership, but losership. And it's probably the most graphic of the sense.
Miss CLAUSSEN: But even the South African minister, and South Africa has been working toward making sure they can have binding commitments of their own, said that what the president said was unacceptable and that Bush was really isolated in the world community. So, there were some very strong comments there.
FLATOW: And he even, recently, with the change of government in Australia, he lost a major...
Ms. CLAUSSEN: Absolutely, because Kevin Rudd, the prime minister now in Australia is going to be implementing a mandatory carbon trade program in Australia and feels very strongly about this and has indicated that environment and the climate, in particular, is the most important issue to the public in Australia.
FLATOW: But let's look at the politics in the couple minutes we have left. Why would the president, who is in his last nine months in office, take this time then to make a speech on the environment?
Ms. CLAUSSEN: Well, I mean, let me offer two thoughts, although honestly, I don't know if these are correct or not. The first is that because there is legislation being considered in the Congress, and because there was a Supreme Court ruling that suggested that EPA should regulate carbon dioxide, the major greenhouse gas under the Clean Air Act, I think he wanted to make a statement that said he doesn't think we need mandatory legislation of the kind that is being considered and that if we actually went ahead and regulated under the Clean Air Act, it would be a mess. So, this might have been a way, just to sort of signal, what his views were on those things. The other thing is that I believe there was serious discussion in the White House about proposing some legislation at least for power plants. It did not survive the White House process. But I think all of this was set up with that in mind, that at the time, people did think that the administration would actually suggest something legislative in nature and mandatory.
FLATOW: Because it would make sense to do something like that, considering how the three presidential candidates are more in line with those views.
Ms. CLAUSSEN: Absolutely, and it's really inevitable some time in 2009 and 2010, that we actually do have mandatory controls on greenhouse gas emissions.
FLATOW: You know, and why not on your way out, make some bold gesture that says, you know, I may be leaving office, but I have an affinity for what these other three - or you say, even John McCain who's been trying for years to get some sort of, you know, some sort of, some sort of cap on this.
Ms. CLAUSSEN: Absolutely. I mean, Senator McCain was the first along with Senator Lieberman to actually propose mandatory climate legislation. So yeah, I think that was part of the intent, but for whatever set of reasons, the White House process, made sure that that was not what was said.
FLATOW: A couple years ago, I asked the senator, and I met him in Europe at a meeting and I said to him - because Tony - the British were there and I said why does the president not see your ways? Are you working on the president? He says, Tony Blair is working on him for me. So...
Ms. CLAUSSEN: Well, that didn't work either.
FLATOW: Well, thank you very much, Eileen, for taking time to talk with us and have a good weekend.
Ms. CLAUSSEN: OK, well, thank you.
FLATOW: Eileen Claussen is the president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. That's in Arlington, Virginia. We're going to take a short break and come back to talk lots more about climate change. We're going to talk about, well, hurricanes, about melting glaciers in Greenland, peripherally skirting the edges but talking about interesting and relevant issues. So, stay with us. We'll be back after this short break.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.