Climate Science Watch director Rick Piltz talked with KPFK-FM in Los Angeles about a letter to President Obama from nine Senate Democrats setting out conditions for supporting a US climate policy, and with Al Jazeera English TV in Washington, DC, about Obama’s participation in the Copenhagen climate conference.
Interviewer: As droves of activists head to Copenhagen, Denmark, to pressure government leaders to take drastic measures on global warming, here in the United States nine Senate Democrats have decided what they would like President Obama to agree to. The Senators wrote a letter to the President suggesting that “all major economies should adopt ambitious, measurable, quantifiable, reportable, and verifiable national actions.” Meanwhile the Senate seems deeply divided over a bill to cut emissions. On the surface it seems like a strong letter that activists could be happy about. The very first point is that the US should seek global agreement on an emissions reduction goal, and they say the the scientific consensus view is that the global average temperature increase ought not to exceed 3.6 degrees F [2 degrees C] above the preindustrial level in order not to exceed unacceptable climate risk.
RP: The aspirational goals sound good, but as they say, the devil is in the details. It’s a 10-point proposal or set of demands for what should be negotiated and what should be in the legislation. To get 60 votes in the Senate you need pretty much unanimity among the Democrats. What you have here is Senators from states that have lost a lot of manufacturing jobs – that have been sent abroad or that have been very hard hit by the state of the economy – or they’re coal-producing states, or states that burn a lot of coal – so they have these domestic economic and political concerns that they have to answer to their voters on. At the same time the US public is limited in what it is willing to do on the global warming problem. There’s been so much confusion spread about the science that the public support for a strong policy is soft. With this letter, you have mostly concerns about protecting jobs and domestic energy policy, which are important. But the letter sets conditions that will make it very difficult to get a strong international agreement.
Interviewer: It seems the senators are quite conceerned about equity between the US and other countries. They’re very concerned that other countries should demonstrate that they’re meeting their climate commitments, and the US should be very careful, very worried about protrecting its own interests.
RP: The senators’ letter refers to what ‘major economies’ need to do. This phrase ‘major economies’ I’m taking to mean not just the industrialized nations of Europe, the US, Canada, and Japan, they must also be referring to China, India, Brazil, and they’re setting some very strict standards. They’re saying they all must make commitments to “quantifable, verifiable” emissions reductions, with penalties for noncompliance, and tariffs at the border for countries that don’t follow rigorous rules. I’m not sure this is the way to frame things to get a deal done with the major developing countries that need to participate.
If you want to talk about equity, look at the cumulative emissions of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and going into the oceans and acidifying it, and the vast majority comes from the industrializied countries, the US and so forth – and the per capita emissions are much higher. There’s a certain tendency to say China’s not willing to do enough, but there are some serious equity issues here that I don’t think the US is really taking into consideration.
Interviewer: The senators talk about the trade implications of climate policy that must be addressed: “Climate and trade policies should be designed to deter the migration of polluting activities from one nation to another.” What are they talking about?
RP: These are senators who have seen corporations export a lot of their manufacturing jobs abroad. They’ve been very hit by that kind of corporate globalization. They’re saying, if the US adopts some strict commitments to reduce our own emissions, then won’t our polluting industries just move more of those jobs abroad to countries that don’t have strict controls – won’t we lose even more jobs to Asia? So they’re saying, before we can sign onto any deal we need to protect our American workers. Of course. But then they’re saying, if the other major economies haven’t adopted strict controls on their emissions, we need to make “border adjustments” on imports. Border adjiustments would be like slapping a tariff, a tax, on say, imports from China, if China hasn’t put in place its own quantifiable, verifiable emissions reduction system. It seems to me that could well be a deal-breaker for any international agreement.
Interviewer: The senators make the point that enhanced technical cooperation will benefit the United States, but say this must be coupled with strong protection for intellectual property rights. This seems like putting a price on saving the planet.
RP: There’s a legitimate issue to discuss here. But if this gets in the way of an agreement that is necesssary to save us from disastrous climate change impacts, then you have a problem.
There’s another angle on this that I’m not sure the senators are really taking into consideration. They’re concerned about our clean energy exports. But the United States has become such a laggard at developing solar energy and wind energy – most of the major producers are in other countries now. The Chinese are committing to these technologies big time, and to producing electric vehicles. We’re liable to be importing our clean energy from countries that are getting ahead of us because the US seems to have difficulty coming up with a policy, a strategy, for the good of the country in the long run and then implementing it.
Interviewer: And developing those clean energy technologies could be exactly what’s needed for creating jobs in the United States.
Interviewer: Finally, the results of this Harris Poll, 51 percent of Americans now believe global warming is human-made, down from 71% just 2 years ago. What do you attribute this fall to?
RP: Part of it is due to a long history of effort by a corporate-funded disinformation campaign to sow confusion – we could go on and on about that – that is a major problem. But there is a failure of the US political leadership to talk candidly with the American public about climate change. The American people have never heard any president speak candidly with them to characterize the nature of the climate change problem, what science is telling us, the implications of inaction, what’s likely to happen with sea level rise and so forth, and what is needed.
Execepts (with some light editing) from Climate Science Watch director Rick Piltz live interview with Al Jazeera English TV at their studio in Washington, DC, December 5:
News Anchor: It’s been 12 years since the last global attempt to reach a comprehensive agreement on climate change. On Monday 192 nations will convene in Copenhagen trying to work out a deal…What is likely to be achieved in Copenhagen?
RP: I think you’re likely to see what they’ll call a political commitment that will push off until next year negotiating a legally binding treaty. That’s the most we can hope for at this point, given the political reality. President Obama’s decision yesterday to go to Copenhagen for the last day of the conference suggests that the US leadership is confident that some kind of political deal can be done that they can present as a positive step forward.
Anchor: A lot of people are fearing that the US is not bringing enough to the table, that President Obama has not been able to get effective climate change legislation through the Congress. Recent poll numbers show people are arguing about whether they even believe in global warming. Is there a fear that the US, on the heels of the Bush administration rejecting Kyoto outright, is going to further drop the ball, so to speak?
RP: There’s no question that we’re very far from where we need to be. If you pay attention to what the climate scinetists are telling us, we don’t have forever to get a serious policy in place, internationally and domestically. US public opinion is very soft in how much it will support on global warming. It has not had real leadership from any president in really speaking frankly on what the climate change problem is about, the likely harmful impacts, and so forth. Obama is limited by the Congress, the Democrats are not united. He can try to push the Congress, he can put down a political marker. By going at the end of Copenhagen, he’s got some skin in the game, as they say—he’s putting his reputation more at stake for being able to get something done with Congress in the next year.