Forecasting Climate Change Legislation With Congress focused on Afghanistan, the economy and health care, will there be any action on domestic climate policy before the Copenhagen climate summit in December? Eileen Claussen, of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, talks about what to expect in the coming months.
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Forecasting Climate Change Legislation

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Forecasting Climate Change Legislation

Forecasting Climate Change Legislation

Forecasting Climate Change Legislation

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With Congress focused on Afghanistan, the economy and health care, will there be any action on domestic climate policy before the Copenhagen climate summit in December? Eileen Claussen, of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, talks about what to expect in the coming months.

IRA FLATOW, host:

You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow. As President Obama likes to say, he has a lot on his plate at the moment with Iraq and Afghanistan and health care. But what about climate change?

The clock is ticking down to December, when a major U.N. summit on climate change is said to take place in Copenhagen. And while the U.S. Congress - and will the U.S. Congress take any action regarding climate change policy before then?

What can we expect to happen in Copenhagen? Joining me now to talk about it and help sort out the options on the table, who the players are, what your score card should look like, is Eileen Claussen. She's the president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change in Arlington, Virginia. Welcome back to the program.

Ms. EILEEN CLAUSSEN (President, Pew Center on Global Climate Change): Well, it's always a pleasure to be here.

FLATOW: How are things shaping up for the meeting?

Ms. CLAUSSEN: Well, I think we're now in a period of lowering expectations.

FLATOW: Really?

Ms. CLAUSSEN: Yes. I mean, I think, you know, maybe six months ago, everybody thought we could have a fully ratifiable agreement negotiated in Copenhagen. And I think for a variety of reasons, the big issues that were on the table then are still on the table now, and I think we're looking for something that is much less than that - progress, but not a fully ratifiable agreement.

FLATOW: Because?

Ms. CLAUSSEN: Well, there are lots of becauses, but…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CLAUSSEN: …one of them is that developed countries really have to put specific targets on the table, you know, targets for reducing emissions, and the U.S. is really not in a position to do that because we still haven't had full congressional action. And we can talk more about that, but there are other issues, as well. Will the developing countries agree to make binding commitments of some sort, particularly the large-emitting developing countries?

Well, they've shown that they're willing to do lots of things nationally, but they haven't really gone that extra step yet. And part of the reason they haven't gone is because we don't have a number, and part of the reason is because they are expecting some financing to help them reach their objectives, and no one has been able to figure out what the mechanism should be or how much money is really going to be required or given.

FLATOW: What a mess.

Ms. CLAUSSEN: Yes, what a mess.

FLATOW: Wow, trying to get that all done by the meeting.

Ms. CLAUSSEN: Well, and there are only five more negotiating days. So I think people are starting to scale back and figure out whether we can get a framework agreed and fill in the details maybe over the following six months, or barring that, can we at least have a strong political declaration and continue to work on this?

FLATOW: And that political declaration, and you talked about one of the problems is we don't have a number yet. That all goes down to nothing happening on Capitol Hill.

Ms. CLAUSSEN: Well, I mean, we have to have some perspective here. I mean, I can say this for somebody who's been working on this for many, many years. I mean, we did have the House pass a bill in June.

FLATOW: Right.

Ms. CLAUSSEN: It's a pretty good bill, and it gives us a good target. The Senate is much slower and tied up in health care. So what can we really expect there? I think the Environment and Public Works Committee will probably deal with and finish with a bill that will come out of that committee probably before Copenhagen, but will we see action on the Senate floor? Will the other committees who are involved in this in the Senate be able to act in time? Would there be a vote? I think the chance of that before Copenhagen are really zero.

FLATOW: Especially with all the other stuff happening.

Ms. CLAUSSEN: Well, that's part of it. I mean, I think health care is probably going to take longer than everyone would have liked, as well.

FLATOW: The president had hoped for a bill by Christmas. It may not happen.

Ms. CLAUSSEN: It may not happen.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 - talking with Eileen Claussen of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. Where do we stand with the whole idea of the cap-and-trade system?

Ms. CLAUSSEN: Well, I think, you know, that's what passed in the House.

FLATOW: Right.

Ms. CLAUSSEN: I think that is the design that is going to eventually pass in the Senate, but I do think that the bill that emerges from the Environment and Public Works Committee is going to still need quite a bit of work before you can get 60 votes together because that's, of course, the test, 60 votes.

FLATOW: And this week, South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said in an op-ed piece in the New York Times that he would support climate-change legislation.

Ms. CLAUSSEN: Yes, which is terrific because the way I do the math, you've got about 40 Democrats who I think would likely support a reasonable bill. And then you've got about 20 Democrats with specific concerns who may or may not support a particular bill, and about 10 Republicans, of which Lindsey Graham is one, who could be, with the right kind of a bill, be persuaded to support it. And from that, you've got to get 60 votes. So from the 30 possibles, you've got to get 20.

FLATOW: And why would Lindsey Graham be supporting this?

Ms. CLAUSSEN: Well, I think he really does understand the science and why we really need to act on this. He cares a lot about nuclear power, as do most of the Republicans that are interested in this bill and perhaps would vote for it. And I think Senator Kerry, who did this op-ed with Senate Graham, agrees that we probably need some provisions on nuclear power.

So I think he has - he's interested in finding a solution here, and he's got certain issues that - you know, he's interested in more drilling, and I think that might end up by being in the compromise, because I think that might be the only way to get 60 votes.

FLATOW: Have the goalposts moved a bit in the Senate on whether global warming is real or not with some of the really staunch disbelievers like James Inhofe, who once said it was the greatest hoax every perpetuated on the American people?

Ms. CLAUSSEN: No.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CLAUSSEN: I just - I mean, I think we still have some who deny the science. But then again, I would never have put him in the category of a possible.

FLATOW: Yeah. So you're talking about counting heads, about people who might vote for this.

Ms. CLAUSSEN: Yes, absolutely.

FLATOW: Yeah. But there are a few people who may have come over, you're saying.

Ms. CLAUSSEN: I think there are some, but I think it really depends on what the bill looks and whether their specific concerns can be dealt with.

For example, when you look at what I would call the 20 iffy Democrats or the 10 Republicans, a lot of them are from states where coal is produced or coal is consumed. So I think it's very important to all of those senators, and it's a lot of them, that we have some provisions that deal with coal and move the coal burning into carbon capture and sequestration, for example.

If that's not there, and these senators see jobs being lost in coal mining or - then I think they may not vote for it. So a lot depends on what the bill ends up looking like.

FLATOW: Who gets what for their district.

Ms. CLAUSSEN: Yes.

FLATOW: Yeah, that's the old - we've heard about that. 1-800-989-8255 - Tom in Michigan. Hi, Tom.

TOM (Caller): Hi, there. Just wanted to say, quick comment, I know your person's heart is in the right place there, but I - after 40 years of political activism, I've got to figure that basically, the United States Congress, the United States Senate and the administration are going to take real serious action on climate change about the same time that people start treading water in Miami.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CLAUSSEN: Oh, I'm much more optimistic than that.

FLATOW: Well, you know, Lester - that's what Lester Brown said, who was on, you know, the program a couple weeks ago. And he said, sometimes it's going to take something like that, you know, to make people wake up because he, you know, he's been pretty right on in predicting economically how the things are going in the climate world.

TOM: Oh, isn't that a real thing, the economic crisis right there. I mean, we didn't do anything until the economy started looking like the Titanic in the Atlantic.

Ms. CLAUSSEN: But, you know, one way to rebuild the economy is to build a new energy economy.

FLATOW: Right.

Ms. CLAUSSEN: I mean, jobs are jobs. If you're manufacturing wind turbines or doing carbon capture and sequestration or even another nuclear plant, those are jobs, and that's manufacturing. So I think, actually, this is not an economic bad story. It's an economic possibly good story.

TOM: Except that you're talking to a wind-turbine manufacturer.

FLATOW: That's you?

TOM: I'm trying to get into the business, and I get about zero help from anybody, including the state. So I'm a bit cynical.

FLATOW: You don't get those tax credits anymore?

TOM: No, no, not for anybody who's not putting out an assembly line to employ 100 people, no.

FLATOW: Wow.

TOM: Sorry.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Well, you know, so the bill that - President Obama's stimulus plan didn't trickle down to you.

TOM: Nope.

(Soundbite of laughter)

TOM: And I'm unemployed, so it really would have been helpful.

FLATOW: All right, Tom, we'll keep track. Thanks for calling.

TOM: Mm-hmm.

FLATOW: You know, the - it does seem, though, it's still a political issue. You know, you say that you're looking for 60 votes, but that means that there's still a lot of disbelievers.

Ms. CLAUSSEN: There are.

FLATOW: This could be economically beneficial. Why would people vote against something - of course, it's a rhetorical question…

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: …Eileen. It's a rhetorical question, because I know the answer. But I'm wondering out loud how could this still be happening if there is so much to be gained in employing so many people in the new economy.

Ms. CLAUSSEN: It's so much easier, you know, to count the jobs that could be lost than it is to count the jobs that might be gained which don't exist, and a lot of people are very focused on, you know, if coal use goes down, that's a certain number of jobs and those are real people with real jobs. And when you're talking about manufacturing a wind turbine or doing something different, it's a hypothetical job, and they're much harder to count.

FLATOW: Yeah. Let's see if we can get another call in here before we have to go. Orlando in San Jose. How are you, Orlando?

ORLANDO (Caller): Hey, thank you for taking my phone call. My main question is, I live in San Jose, Silicon Valley. I work for a global company that manufactures, of all things, solar panels. However, during this economic downturn, we've had a number of shutdowns and first furloughs and layoffs. And I'm just wondering how this anemic growth of, like, something as green power, green energy, is going to be offset by, say, an emerging economy like India or China having to put up just to keep pace with the economy.

You know, a coal plant every, you know, six months or every year, I don't know how the facts work out - but I was wondering if anybody in the panel could address that.

FLATOW: Okay, thanks for the call.

Ms. CLAUSSEN: Well, I mean, China is an interesting case because, yes, they are continuing to build coal plants, but they've also gone headstrong into wind turbine manufacturing and solar panel manufacturing.

FLATOW: And maybe why these guys can't get any business.

Ms. CLAUSSEN: Well - I mean, actually, for - we import a lot of these things from China, because we don't actually have the manufacturing here, and you could ask why we don't have that much of the manufacturing here, and I think it's because we don't have a policy that says these are the things you have to do, either by requiring that certain percentage to be from renewables, for example, or by putting a price on carbon, which would make, you know, low-carbon or carbon-free sources of energy more profitable.

FLATOW: And that goes back to the whole cap and trade versus carbon tax question.

Ms. CLAUSSEN: Right. I mean - but I think you need something…

FLATOW: Yeah.

Ms. CLAUSSEN: …here if we're actually going to start manufacturing in here.

FLATOW: Well, don't we have private entrepreneurs that are - you know, we've heard a couple of them say that they can't get any business and…

Ms. CLAUSSEN: Yeah, but I think that's because we don't have a policy in place that says you have to do this, or that puts a price on carbon so it becomes attractive to do this.

FLATOW: And we - and that policy would be wrapped up in a…

Ms. CLAUSSEN: In a climate and energy bill, if we could actually get one done as soon as possible.

FLATOW: Are those policies in the bill that just can't get passed or they're not even in the bill?

Ms. CLAUSSEN: Well, I mean, they were in the House bill. I mean, there were renewable requirements in the House bill, which included a cap and trade. The Senate Energy Committee passed a bill out of its committee, which would include a renewable requirement. The cap and trade piece is the piece that'll come from Environment and Public Works.

Some of the financial stuff will come from Senate Finance. The Senate Agriculture Committee will probably do something for agriculture. The Commerce Committee will do some things and then Majority Leader Reid will have to put all of us into a package that hopefully can get 60 votes.

FLATOW: Talking with Eileen Claussen this hour on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

Of course, the president's science advisor and he himself has talked about a nuclear future.

Ms. CLAUSSEN: Well, I mean, that's another thing. If there's a price on carbon, I think that's the greatest help to nuclear, because of course that's carbon-free.

FLATOW: And can - well, can we get these plants a nuclear plant or enough of them built in time?

Ms. CLAUSSEN: Well, they're not going to happen that fast. I mean, my own sense is that the first thing that happens is you see a lot more energy efficiency.

FLATOW: Right.

Ms. CLAUSSEN: In fact, we're not that efficient. And if there's a price on carbon, that becomes the thing that happens first.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And I think that's why, you know, we're sitting here lamenting what's not happening and that's I think why Lester Brown was on last time saying, it ain't going to happen till something happens, you know? Something big happens to show that we better get moving on.

Ms. CLAUSSEN: Well, I mean, I hope we don't have to wait that long. Well…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CLAUSSEN: …or that isn't what actually does it. Because I mean I think it's so much in our interests, you know, the global interest, to take this on.

FLATOW: What do you think then is the best scenario, giving your summation of Copenhagen, that we can expect to come out of that meeting?

Ms. CLAUSSEN: Well, I mean, if we could come out with a framework, something that sort of puts everything in place minus the very specific numbers, like exactly how much money, exactly what is committed to, you know, and what the target is. I think that would be tremendous progress, and I think that's a challenge. I also think it's important that we have some kind of a date certain to finish this, so that it doesn't look like it's just going into Never-Neverland. If we can do that, and then if the Senate acts in the first, you know, third of next year, because, you know, you're in an election year, so it's going to happen early, we actually might be able to wind something up, let's say, by the middle of the year next year, which - I mean, this is the positive scenario.

FLATOW: Yeah. You know, critics of the Kyoto Treaty, you know, say, lot of promises were made, but even the people who signed on couldn't keep those promises.

Ms. CLAUSSEN: Well, I don't think it's fair to say that. The period of the Kyoto Treaty that is important was 2008 to 2012. And actually, we're only in 2009. So it's a little premature, I think, to say those countries that ratified it and have specific targets didn't meet it. I actually believe that, for example, the Europeans as a whole will meet it.

I'm not sure every member state will, but some will probably do better and some will probably do worse. And on average, I think they will meet it. But you know, we're not at 2012 yet. And so those who say it's been a failure, I think, are just trying to show that we shouldn't do this.

FLATOW: Is Copenhagen supposed to be the next step after Kyoto?

Ms. CLAUSSEN: Yes, it's supposed to sort of deal with the period after, I think probably in a new treaty that supersedes Kyoto. Although the developing countries would like to keep Kyoto and just have sort of an add-on piece that would deal with them. And there are all kinds of legal reasons that they would prefer that and others might not.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. So we have to watch to see what happens in Congress with the energy legislation there, and then see if we can get out of this entanglement of Copenhagen.

Ms. CLAUSSEN: Yes, because I mean there also is sort of a movement to, if I can sort of put it bluntly, blame the U.S. for a failure in Copenhagen. And while you could say we are certainly part of the problem, I think it's pretty clear that we're not all of it.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Well, at least we have more vocal support from this president than we had from the other one.

Ms. CLAUSSEN: And because a lot has really happened. I mean, there's a lot of stimulus money that actually went into clean energy. EPA has moved forward with reporting requirements with proposed regulations for vehicles, which would make a serious dent in this. They're looking at power plants and how to deal with those from a carbon point of view. So actually, if you look at what the administration controls itself, I think it's done just about everything that it possibly could.

FLATOW: All right. Thank you, Eileen, for taking time to be with us.

Ms. CLAUSSEN: Okay. My pleasure.

FLATOW: Good luck to you. Have a good weekend.

Ms. CLAUSSEN: Yeah. Bye-bye.

FLATOW: Eileen Claussen is president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change in Arlington, Virginia.

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