Reporter's Notebook: Harris On Copenhagen President Barack Obama hailed the last-minute accord at the U.N. climate summit in Copenhagen as a breakthrough. But many delegates left disappointed. NPR science correspondent Richard Harris talks about what was and what was not achieved in Copenhagen.
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Reporter's Notebook: Harris On Copenhagen

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Reporter's Notebook: Harris On Copenhagen

Reporter's Notebook: Harris On Copenhagen

Reporter's Notebook: Harris On Copenhagen

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  • Transcript

President Barack Obama hailed the last-minute accord at the U.N. climate summit in Copenhagen as a breakthrough. But many delegates left disappointed. NPR science correspondent Richard Harris talks about what was and what was not achieved in Copenhagen.


The United Nations climate summit in Copenhagen was supposed to be a game-changer that would produce an agreement for real reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and slow the rate of climate change. President Barack Obama and other world leaders swept into the Danish capital on the last couple of days and emerged with a nonbinding agreement.

President Barack Obama hailed it as a breakthrough. Most reviews, though, ranged from disappointment to debacle. NPR's science correspondent Richard Harris is back from Copenhagen and joins us here in Studio 3A. Welcome home, Richard.

RICHARD HARRIS: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: And this nonbinding agreement is just that: nonbinding. It doesn't require anybody to do anything.

HARRIS: That's true. Although it does refer to national plans both here and in China, in India, in Brazil and other major emitters around the world where countries have started to say, okay, we have to pay attention to climate. We've got to do something. Here are our national plans. And to - we don't have any idea how well people play out on those national plans, but at least this references them and for the first time sort of brings them into some sort of international umbrella.

CONAN: And one of the goals was to hold the rise in global temperatures to two degree Centigrade.

HARRIS: Three-point-six degrees Fahrenheit, if you care, for the common translation. But, yes, that was one of the points that came out. It's actually been articulated previously by a meeting of the world's 20 biggest emitters, which emit 80 percent of all global warming gases anyway. So, that target has been fairly well established in terms of an aspirational target.

The problem is that there were no specific measures on the table to say how you're going to get there. And, in fact, when you look at the specific measures that are on the table, we aren't going to get there. We have to do a heck of a lot more than even these aspirational goals that people have put down.

CONAN: And perhaps among those most frustrated were the representatives from island nations, low-lying island nations who said, unless we do something, unless we have some commitment in this agreement today, this week, this year, our nations are going to vanish underwater.

HARRIS: That was certainly a thread throughout the talks. There's no doubt about it. In fact, they were saying two degrees Centigrade was actually too much. They wanted a degree-and-a-half or something. But that was not in the cards. It was, you know, even getting a agreement on two degrees was out of reach.

CONAN: Out of reach. So what happens next?

HARRIS: What happens now is - well, I think a couple of things happen. One of which is the United Nations talks which was this sort of - this agreement was sort of a satellite to the United Nations talks. It happened in the midst of them, but it actually was President Obama who flew in and talked to about 20 countries and sort of said what kind of deal can we put together. And it wasn't formally in the U.N. talks framework because those talks had utterly gridlocked. They had fallen apart just because it's a consensus process. There are 193 nations. Doesn't take very many to jam things up, and that's exactly what happened.

So what we have here is this sort of promise that says how to guide stuff in the future, non-binding. At the same time, all of the United Nations process will keep moving on into next year where they're hoping to come up to try again. It's not clear how they would not have a replay of this particular debacle but they're going to try again to come up with some sort of treaty. They at least have some framework from the leaders of the world.

Incidentally, many, many countries said, we like this general framework. This is - even though it's non-binding, it's sort of reflects our interests and so on. So there's a lot of support for it. But, again, whether that can be translated into a binding, legal agreement next year is - the...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Highly doubtful.

Mr. HARRIS: ...highly doubtful. Yeah.

CONAN: I can say that. Maybe you can't. If you'd like to talk with Richard Harris about what and - did and what did not happen in Copenhagen, give us call, 800-989-8255. Or zap us an email:

And that - as you said, the process, the U.N. process had ground to a complete halt and the chairman of the conference had in fact resigned during this process. But - so, Senator - President Obama says, look, at least we got something out of this. That represented something of a triumph. But there are others who said, look, that first process got into a bind in the first place because the United States in particular and the rich countries in general didn't want to risk reigning in their economies or were indeed not willing to commit enough money to help the poorer countries.

It's true. I mean, that's a huge conundrum of how to deal with climate change. I think, in terms of the process of the meeting, it was a pro forma resignation of the chairperson who stepped aside when the high level talks began and let her - she was Danish and she let the Danish prime minister sort of take over. He actually - people were upset with the way she was chairing the meeting but that wasn't really the major reason she quit.

CONAN: Okay.

HARRIS: People were no less happy with the...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: With the prime minister.

HARRIS: ...with the prime minister, okay. So that was not at all a game changer for the meeting. But, yes, it's true that it's an enormous - you know, people - there are, you know, 193 nations who are signatories to this agreement which is part of the United Nations framework convention on climate change, which was - which is - international law was signed in 1992, but they all have different interests. I mean, you've got Saudi Arabia on the one hand who wants to say, we want to make sure that our oil economy doesn't go south as things happen here. You've got the island nations you mentioned who don't want to be - find themselves underwater. You've got countries like China who say, look, we have more than 100 million people in poverty. We don't want to slow down our rate of economic growth.

CONAN: Which is based on, primarily, burning coal.

HARRIS: Absolutely. So, I mean, the issues in front of us are enormous and there are no easy answers out there.

CONAN: When it comes down to big power politics though, one thing that did seem to emerge at this conference - and, indeed, in other contexts as well - but at this conference was the importance of China in all of this.

HARRIS: Absolutely. And that has been interesting. I've been watching this climate talks for many years. China was really very much on the sidelines until a couple of years ago, the Bali conference that essentially set this one up. But all of a sudden, China started saying, we don't want to just sit in the back row and not say anything. We want to get engaged. And it has been a really interesting process to see that China has actually become more and more engaged internationally, recognizing that it can't just sit there and do nothing.

The other very important thing that has happened was when this whole process started in 1992. China was, you know, was not the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases by any means and today it is. So their economic growth has spurred a really dramatic change in where they stand on the world stage.

CONAN: But according to, at least, some reports, it was in that final meeting that President Obama was trying to chair, that they - he and others were trying to include solid commitments in the plan and it was the Chinese who were dragging their feet.

HARRIS: Chinese said, we are committed to what we are promising ourselves that we're going to do domestically but we don't want to make it an internationally binding deal.

CONAN: And we don't even want you to put your commitments in this document.

HARRIS: Well, I think that China was perfectly happy to have the wealthy nations - the wealthiest nations of the world, the high emitters, commit. China really liked the Kyoto Protocol which makes - or which actually does commit the wealthiest nations to do something and does not commit the developing nations to do anything. They're happy with the way that was. And this is really part of a much longer process of trying to say, okay, the deal that we basically gave a free pass to China and India and Brazil when we started this process, we can't do that anymore. We've got to start moving and getting everyone on the same page. And they didn't succeed in doing that but they moved China somewhat in that direction.

CONAN: And are China and India and Brazil all on the same page on this?

HARRIS: More or less. I mean, they have - they all have very different situations. I mean, China is currently the biggest emitter. India is down there a little ways. But they are growing rapidly. There are 400 million people in India without electricity, and you can't blame the Indian's government from saying, hey, you know, we want to develop. We want to burn coal. We want to do whatever it takes to...

CONAN: You guys all got to burn all that coal that caused this global warming incipiently. And now, that it's a global problem, you're saying to us stop it.

HARRIS: Right. That's true. And Brazil is a slightly different situation because Brazil's major issue is deforestation. But they are committed for multiple reasons to limiting deforestation. When you cut down forests, of course, you put carbon dioxide in the atmosphere also.

CONAN: And as you look at these diverse views, there are other people including those island nations who say, look, if this doesn't stop very shortly, we're going to be underwater. Is it too late at this point to reverse the kind of climate change that's going to be inevitable?

HARRIS: Well, we're certainly heading rapidly in the wrong direction. The question is how rapidly the sea level will rise? And there is a huge uncertainty in that figure. The scientific estimates range from maybe seven inches this century, which would not be catastrophic for island nations, to one meter, which is about three feet, which would be seriously troublesome to island nations.

There are a couple of outlier estimates that it could be as much as six feet, which would be disastrous to island nations so - maybe not this century. The problem is that things don't stop at the end of the century.

CONAN: No, they don't.

HARRIS: So if we don't...

CONAN: And we're talking about slowing the rate of climate change and not reversing it.

HARRIS: Yeah. We cannot do - we've already committed to a certain amount of climate change just because we've put a lot of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. It takes awhile for that to be felt throughout the climate system. But the heating does not happen instantaneously. Even if we stop immediately everything today, the climate would continue to heat up somewhat. I mean, not to levels that people would consider dangerous. But the point is there's a huge amount of momentum in the system and so you have to, you know, you have to be thinking ahead decades or even centuries down the line.

CONAN: We're talking with NPR science correspondent Richard Harris, back from Copenhagen. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's get Ana Marie(ph) on the line. Ana Marie calling us from Charleston.

ANA MARIE (Caller): Yes. I'm curious to what happened in regards to China. Why did they focus during the week on emissions transparency and reporting emissions as their main issue that they chose? That - during the week, that's what we heard that they're holding up talks over.

HARRIS: That's true. And it's an interesting issue. I don't think anyone has quite gotten to the bottom of it yet. But that has been - that was the main U.S. position. It was, if we can get the Chinese to agree to be open with what their emissions are, that's an important step toward getting them to an international commitment.

Even if we got them to commit, if we don't know what exactly - if we can't verify their commitment, it doesn't do any good. So the U.S. was pressing very, very hard on China to get them to talk about verification. I talked to one Chinese law student who said, actually, a lot of this is a problem of not using the same language. And if you look at the documents, and you translate into Chinese the word verification, it actually means something much more harsh and scary to the Chinese. And I think it took awhile for people to realize that part of this was a language issue, that when we said verification they were thinking that meant that we could march into their country and look at their power plants and so on.

I think the U.S. government was not interested in anything that intrusive, and so I think in the very end, it ended up being to some degree, some wordsmithing to say, okay, what is, what do we mean when we say verification and when they say transparency? And there was some actually pretty mushy language that ended up in the agreement that sort of - that's not too sharp to help people to sort that out. But my colleague David Kestenbaum reported quite possibly that President Obama sat down with the premier of China, just one-on-one, to finally hammer out that language. That really was one of the main stumbling blocks in the agreement.


ANA MARIE: Thank you very much for talking about this.

CONAN: All right, thank you Anna Marie. Appreciate the phone call. And as you just said there was mushy language, the mushy language on a bunch of other points. The Europeans were amongst those nations most disappointed with the results of Copenhagen. Are they talking about another process? Are they talking about something that can jolt this process to life?

HARRIS: Well, when we left Copenhagen, I think that Europeans were still looking ahead to the next treaty talks and so on. I think there's going to be a lot of soul searching in the next few months to ask - to asked whether this is the right process to work with.

There's no ideal process. You can't have total consensus. But one strategy that actually was initiated by President George Bush was the idea of getting the 20 biggest emitters together, who constitute about 80 percent of emissions, and have them sit down and try to cut a deal and not worry about the 193 nations who are all - who all have an opinion on this stuff. And that was somewhat derided at the time, as a diversion from the U.N. talks. But in essence that kind of played out in these - as we saw in Copenhagen.

CONAN: In the last day, when the - those were the big powers who were in that room by themselves. So let's get Gerald(ph) on the line. Gerald with us from Livingston, Tennessee.

GERALD (Caller): Yes, good afternoon, men. Yeah. One of my main questions is (unintelligible) only makes up of 1 percent in the atmosphere and they're talking about if it goes to 400 parts per million, then the show is basically over with, and the fact that so many people in the environmental movement have said that the communists have infiltrated in trying to take over the movement, and this is nothing about trying to get money from the Western civilizations, and redistribute it around the world. So to me, I think, this is much to do about nothing.

CONAN: Well, there's somebody who clearly believes that global warming is - well, in some part a communist plot?

(Soundbite of laughter)

HARRIS: Well, I think that there was no question that there was a broadly held assumption by practically everyone at the table that global warming was a real and serious concern. No one was saying, oh, this is nothing to worry about. Saudi Arabia made a few little noises to that end. But basically, this is a global consensus of scientists, and as we saw also of policymakers, that global warming is a serious thing. And let's try to figure it out.

CONAN: When we talk to you on your way to Copenhagen, there was a big issue about what was called Climategate, which were all these emails which appear to show how mainstream scientists were suppressing research they did not necessarily agree with, or which they thought was bad science. Did that come up at Copenhagen?

HARRIS: Just very peripherally. I think that people understand that that was a - I mean, it's a, at worst, a minor academic scandal. It does not overturn the basic premise of global warming in any sense of the word. You could throw out everything that those guys ever did and you'd still have an extremely solid basis for saying global warming is real and serious concern if you look at the rest of the scientific literature. So that did not turn - that did not play out in Copenhagen.

CONAN: Richard Harris, thanks very much for your time. And again, welcome home. Have a great holiday.

HARRIS: Thank you so much.

CONAN: NPR science correspondent Richard Harris, who covered the climate talks in Copenhagen, with us today here in Studio 3A.

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