Bush Convenes Climate Conference in Washington At a U.N. meeting this week, more than 80 heads of state met to focus on the problem of climate change. President Bush did not participate in that meeting, choosing instead to convene a separate two-day conference in Washington. Will the new round of talks lead to any changes in U.S. climate policy?
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Bush Convenes Climate Conference in Washington

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Bush Convenes Climate Conference in Washington

Bush Convenes Climate Conference in Washington

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You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

Up next: This week, the U.N. General Assembly convened in New York, and the U.N. secretary-general kicked things off with a one-day climate meeting, looking ahead to December negotiations in Bali, when delegates will begin working on a treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol which is set to expire in 2012.

President Bush did not attend the U.N. meeting in New York, but he did send his - Secretary Condoleezza Rice to it. He did convene his own meeting in Washington that was going on yesterday and closing up today. And the meeting brings together representatives from developing and industrialized countries, sort of all the big polluters. And the Bush administration is expected to use the meeting to push its position. The president has said already today that he wants voluntary rather than mandatory limits for greenhouse gas emissions.

Here now with a report from the meeting is Elliot Diringer, director of international strategies at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change in Arlington, Virginia. And he joins us today from his office there. Welcome back to the program.

Mr. ELLIOT DIRINGER (Director of International Strategies, Pew Center on Global Climate Change): Thanks, Ira. Good to be with you.

FLATOW: Were you at that meeting today?

Mr. DIRINGER: I was at the president's speech this morning and sat in on the afternoon session yesterday when they discussed the number of technologies and sectors. But one of the striking things about this meeting is that most of it is not open to observers and the press. So after the president's speech, most of us were shooed out.

FLATOW: Why is that?

Mr. DIRINGER: Well, what the administration says is to allow an atmosphere within the room where governments can engage in some frank and open discussion.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Did the president say anything new today that he has not said about the direction the U.S. should go? He's always said that, you know, he doesn't want to impose any kind of carbon tax or mandatory capping because he feels it's going to upset the economy of the country. Has he changed anything today in his talk?

Mr. DIRINGER: No. In terms of his general policy direction, really nothing new and all. He focused more on the international way forward as opposed to domestic policy, but thereto continued to emphasize a strictly voluntary approach. I think the - a couple of new things. He said that he wants to convene a summit of heads of state to carry this process forward by next summer. And he also talked about - he proposed an international clean technology fund to help developing countries, and said Secretary Paulson, the Treasury secretary, will be consulting with other countries on that. You know, a good idea, but at this stage nothing more than a line and in a speech.

FLATOW: It seems unusual that he would convene this at the same time the U.N. is doing it. Wouldn't it - if I were at the U.N., I would feel like it was a slap in the face to me.

Mr. DIRINGER: You know, I don't think it was perceived that way, actually, and it's kind of interesting how I think both of these events together have helped reaffirm the legitimacy of the U.N. as the appropriate forum for negotiating this issue.

When the president first proposed his major economist process on the eve of G8 earlier this year, the other countries made clear that for G8 endorsement of this process, the president had to agree to link it to the U.N. process. And in doing that, the president himself has actually helped to re-legitimize the U.N. as the appropriate forum.

FLATOW: On the other hand, the U.N. is looking for something like mandatory limits, and the U.S. is making it totally voluntary.

Mr. DIRINGER: Well, I'm not sure that we can ascribe that to the U.N. per se. What is the U.N.? It's a place where governments come together to negotiate issues like this. But, certainly, many if not most other governments in the process would favor a mandatory approach.

We've tried the voluntary approach going back to 1992, when the president's father signed the Rio Treaty. We set out a voluntary aim for industrialized countries who are producing emissions to 1990 levels by 2000 - it didn't work. The U.S. emissions are 16 percent above 1990 levels now. So most countries say, you know, we've been there, we've done that, it didn't work, time to get forward with some binding commitments.

FLATOW: On the other hand, how many commitments from the Kyoto Treaty actually came about? How many…

Mr. DIRINGER: Well, the…

FLATOW: …targets?

Mr. DIRINGER: …compliance period for Kyoto actually doesn't start until 2008 and runs through 2012. The European Union is quite confident that it is on track to meeting its Kyoto target. The Japanese government is having a tougher time of that, but say they could well make it. So whether or not the countries that took commitments under Kyoto fully achieved their targets, I'm not sure that's measure of success. Has it inspired them to stronger action? Yes, it has.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. But what - the Chinese - people who say, you know, well, as long the Chinese are not part of Kyoto, it's not going to really help the global situation. There's a certain amount of truth to that, is there not? The Chinese are now becoming the number one greenhouse gas emitters, and if they don't sign on, what's the sense of anybody else doing anything?

Mr. DIRINGER: Well, from our perspective, what we need is a new treaty establishing commitments from all the major economies, including China and India and the other major emerging economies. I think we need to have a frank discussion about what type of commitments different countries can or should be able to take on, because we can't expect the same level of effort from countries like China and India if they haven't produced the bulk of greenhouse gas emissions historically, and we shouldn't necessarily expect them to take on the same type of commitment.

So we think we need a more flexible framework where, yes, all these countries come together and commit - take on some binding commitments, but they're allowed to come in with different types of commitments.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Well, I guess, if the U.S. had mandatory limits, we'd give them the moral authority to say, well, we did it. You should be doing it, too.

Mr. DIRINGER: Well, certainly, without that, we have very little moral authority to insist on other countries taking commitments. I think that the U.S., committing itself first domestically - adopting federal legislations, setting mandatory limits on greenhouse gas emissions - that is the first step in unlocking the stalemate we've had for too many years now.

Once the U.S. has committed itself at the domestic level to some serious action, then it can help lead a negotiation to get other people to take on commitments.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Aren't some American lawmakers - we hear about them pushing for a national cap on emissions and an emission trading systems, sort of, like we had with other air pollution…

Mr. DIRINGER: Absolutely, and I think in terms of where this country is headed at the moment to address global warming, that's the real story. While the Bush administration continues to oppose any sort of mandatory measures, there's very strong and growing momentum in Congress - both the House and the Senate - to come up with legislation to do just that, to establish the mandatory cap and trade system that, yes, worked quite successfully for us in addressing acid rain.

FLATOW: But you don't think this administration is not going to go for something like that.

Mr. DIRINGER: You know, I guess I wouldn't rule it out between now and the 2008 election, if one can conjecture scenarios where the president could well be presented with a bill and may feel compelled to sign it. It's probably more likely, though, after the next presidential election, and we think fairly certain by 2010.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. What should we be looking for the December U.N. negotiations in Bali? What would be some key milestones to watch for there?

Mr. DIRINGER: Well, I mean, let me first say what I think is needed and then maybe what's perhaps a little more realistic. What we need is an agreement among the parties to the framework convention, including the United States, to launch a new ground of negotiations leading toward a new set of multilateral commitments. That would be the best outcome at Bali.

But given that the U.S. will still be represented by the Bush administration, the U.S. is very unlikely to sign on to a decision like that. So I think the best we might be able to hope for is some type of process that carries the discussion forward isn't declared formally a negotiation, but maybe is structured in such a way that it could actually pivot into a real negotiation once the politics align.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And realistically speaking, what do you think is going to come out?

Mr. DIRINGER: Well, I guess that latter thought, I think, is maybe on the optimistic…


Mr. DIRINGER: …realistic but I don't think anybody is going to want to walk away from Bali without an agreement. That may mean a fairly weak agreement, but I don't think anybody's going to want to be perceived as having blocked the agreement. I think there's enough interest among other countries to have a new process that the U.S. will have to agree to something. It's a question of how strong a process we can get.

FLATOW: Has this issue gotten any traction in the upcoming electoral season next year, do you think, in this country?

Mr. DIRINGER: Well, I think at this stage, it's not getting a lot of attention among the Democratic candidates. There is, you know, reasonable degree of consistency in the position so that there isn't much to argue over. I think in the Republican primary, it's not really an issue for the base, so none of the candidates necessarily feel the need to speak to it. But I think if there are significant differences in the positions of the two candidates coming out of the primaries, then I think it could well be an issue.

FLATOW: Elliot, thank you for taking time to be with us today.

Mr. DIRINGER: My pleasure.

FLATOW: Elliot Diringer is director of international strategies at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change in Arlington, Virginia.

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