Can the U.S. compel global collaboration on climate change?


Watch Video

JUDY WOODRUFF: We pick up the story from here with Andrew Steer. He is president and CEO of the World Resources Institute. It’s an environmental research organization in Washington. And Scott Barrett, a professor at Columbia University’s Earth Institute.

And we welcome both of you to the program.

Scott Barrett, to you first.

This speech that Secretary Kerry gave in Jakarta is one of just a series that he’s giving to say to developing nations, you too have a role in addressing climate change. How do you read what he’s trying to do?

SCOTT BARRETT, Columbia University: Well, it’s true that all these countries do have a role.

The way that negotiations started was that there’s a focus on a concept called common but differentiated responsibilities, and this was interpreted to mean that the rich countries need to move first and the poor countries can act later after they develop.

But what we have learned is that, if the poorer countries, particularly the large, fast-growing countries, don’t act now, then we will be building up a huge amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. And the actions that will be taken by the richer countries really won’t matter very much.

This is particularly true not just because of the scale, but also because of globalization, which makes it very easy for emissions to move around as it were. So it’s very important that, if we’re to address this problem fundamentally, that we need to have a comprehensive effort at the global level to cut emissions.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Andrew Steer, how do you hear what he was saying?  He seemed to have a real urgency in his voice yesterday.

ANDREW STEER, World Resources Institute: Oh, I think this was a more passionate speech than I have heard before. I think it’s a wonderful thing, because, quite frankly, unless we address this issue, we’re in very deep trouble.

The world has set itself a target to limit temperature increases, to two degrees Celsius worldwide. We’re now past three or four degrees. That will result in agricultural yields in Africa falling by 30 percent. It will result in sea level rise by 1.5 meters. That will threaten more than a billion people.

It will result in massive changes in the hydrological cycle, so food will be much more difficult. So, if you care about your grandchildren, you have to take this seriously.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Andrew — or, I should say Scott Barrett, as you hear what he’s saying, how — let’s talk about the political reality here, because for the United States secretary of state to be saying to these countries, whether it’s Indonesia, China or India, do something about your emissions, what are the political challenges he’s facing in each one of these countries?

SCOTT BARRETT: Well, I think the key problem, what he’s trying to draw attention to is that all countries need to act together. It won’t be possible to address this problem if only some countries act.

However, for individual countries to be willing to act, they have to believe that others are going to act with them and that together they actually can make a difference to the climate. And I think the problem up to this point is that that kind of assurance that is needed has been absent.

So I think a key challenge for the secretary of state, for the United States, for all the lead negotiators is going to be to come up with a strategy for how to make these connections among all these different key countries, so that when each one moves forward, they can have confidence that the others will move forward and this problem will be addressed.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Andrew Steer, is that how you see the challenge facing the United States?  And how do you see — do you see it a matter of getting countries to work together?

ANDREW STEER: Well, that’s going to be essential, but I think we would be mis-specifying the issue if the notion is we have got it right and we have to persuade them.

Most of these countries understand much better than we do that it’s a problem, because they’re much more affected by it. I lived five years in Indonesia, for example, very recently. President Yudhoyono understands this is a very serious issue. He has a target of 26 percent reduction in greenhouse gases from what they were before by 2020. He says, we will go up to 40 percent, but we need some help.

These countries don’t have the resources we have, so we’re going to have to have some kind of deal where we support them. But China also — the notion that somehow we have got to persuade China to act, it’s just not true. This year, China’s introducing a cap and trade system on itself. It’s got a very, very difficult situation, as we just saw, on air pollution, but in addition to that, it knows that it’s going to be much more threatened by climate change than we are here in the United States.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Scott Barrett, if it requires some kind of a deal, some appealing arrangement, what do you see coming together? Are the outlines of something visible or knowable at this point?

SCOTT BARRETT: Well, it’s a bit hard to tell. I should say that all of this is really leading up to Paris in 2015, December 2015.

JUDY WOODRUFF: This is the next conference.

SCOTT BARRETT: That’s the next big conference.

This is the next Copenhagen, as it were. And I think one of the thing that has been absorbed by all of the parties is that the approach that has been tried in the past hasn’t worked. I think there’s still some fumbling around about what’s the best way forward. There seems to be a focus right now on what countries can declare they would be willing to do on their own, and some kind of attempt to compare, to make sure that countries that are equal in some respects are making equal sacrifices, and also that all this adds up to something that’s useful and meaningful.

However, this may bring about some kind of agreement. It’s not clear to me that it would prove — improve very much on what countries might do on their own. I think the key thing is going to go and always has been how to bring about some enforcement of a collective effort to act.

And there are some signs that people are paying a little attention to that, but I’m afraid that the overall need for a strategy and enforcement is so far getting less attention than it deserves.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you see that, Andrew Steer, and how much clout do you see the U.S. having in all of this?

ANDREW STEER: Oh, I think the U.S. has huge clout.

And I think over the last year, as President Obama has laid out a strategy of getting to a 17 percent reduction of greenhouse gases by 2020, I think the U.S. has even more clout. In September this year, Ban Ki-Moon is hosting a meeting of all the heads of states in Dublin.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The U.N. secretary-general.

ANDREW STEER: And the idea is that we’re going to try and change the debate.

Most people look at the challenge of climate change and they think, my goodness, it’s going to be costly. Well, it turns out that, just as the science is firming up, so too the economics is firming up. It turns out that if we do it right, we can have a transition to a low carbon future that actually has more jobs, more technology and actually benefits people.

Now, Indonesia is one of the sponsors of something called the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, an international effort, some Nobel Prize winners in economics working on this. And what this is looking at is, how do you actually design a system whereby you will be able to make the transition?

And all around the world now, you have got mayors of cities, you have got leaders of corporations saying, actually, the current situation where we don’t really know what’s going to happen isn’t going to work for us. And so changing in the debate is extremely important, and the U.S. obviously has a central role in that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Some discussions not just at the national level, but across cities and across other organizations.

Andrew Steer, Scott Barrett, we thank you both.

ANDREW STEER: Thank you.

SCOTT BARRETT: Thank you.

The post Can the U.S. compel global collaboration on climate change? appeared first on PBS NewsHour.