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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Whither Climate Change Policy?

Air Date: Week of

Christopher Flavin, Vice President of the World Watch Institute, speaks with host Steve Curwood about the pace of climate policy action on the national level. Flavin offers criticism and praise for what certain countries are doing.


CURWOOD: If insurers get involved, they could pump new life into the efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions. But for the time being, that effort is barely showing a pulse. For instance, the current negotiations in Berlin are expected to produce little movement away from the vague language of the 1992 International Climate Change Convention. Christopher Flavin has been observing the international climate policy debate as Vice President of the World Watch Institute in Washington, and is becoming more and more frustrated.

FLAVIN: It's become clear that the industrial countries in particular are paralyzed on this issue now. You have a more conservative trend in many governments. You have probably somewhat less public attention to the issue of climate change now than we had a few years ago. And the industrial lobbies have been extremely active behind the scene, particularly the fossil fuel lobbies in terms of trying to dissuade industrial countries from action.

CURWOOD: How about the United States? How are we doing?

FLAVIN: There has been a significant shift in terms of stated policy, in terms of the rhetoric that comes out of the White House and other agencies under the Clinton Administration. But I think certainly, given the high expectations, it's fair to say that the actual policies are rather disappointing. The Clinton climate plan is sort of a loose collection of many different policies. It is now clear that the Clinton Administration is going to not to meet its own weak goals. And then beyond that, it is also now looking quite likely that the Congress, the new Republican Congress, is not even going to fund the very minimal climate programs that are already in place. So it is looking like the world's largest carbon dioxide emitter is going to go on increasing those emissions for at least some time to come.

CURWOOD: How are the developing countries doing in general meeting the threat of global warming?

FLAVIN: The developing countries are not required under the treaty to limit carbon dioxide emissions in the near term, and most of them argue that it's basically their right to do what the industrial countries have done in the past: to industrialize and to heavily use fossil fuels as they industrialize. Fortunately, there are plenty of business leaders and environmentalists and others in the developing world that are beginning to understand that they may be better off economically in terms of their local environments as well as helping to protect the climate, if they begin to shift, at a relatively early stage, to solar and wind energy, for example, which most developing countries have in abundance. So despite the fact that there is not much going on on the climate issue per se in terms of changing policies in developing countries, there is a lot of development of wind and solar energy that is beginning to take place. And I would particularly single out India, which of course is the world's second largest country in terms of population, has been a heavy user of coal in the past, but now is one of the world's largest markets for solar and wind energy technologies.

CURWOOD: In your view, what has to happen to focus the attention of the world on this problem, to speed up this process of abating carbon dioxide emissions?

FLAVIN: Well, unfortunately, if you take history for a guide, it's likely that it will require some significant crisis that really ends all of the scientific debates and brings this issue to public attention in a way that it has not reached in the last several years. If you look at the really substantial success that we've had in addressing the ozone depletion issue, the very strong efforts to reduce and eliminate chlorofluorocarbon emissions were driven by the fact that we had a sudden, totally unexpected hole in the ozone layer open up over Antarctica. And the question that not only climate scientists but policy makers are beginning to ask is what is the hole in the ozone layer equivalent going to be for the climate issue? And I think that there is a very great possibility that we will see some unwelcome and perhaps even catastrophic climate event occur at some point in the future, which will completely change the political dynamics surrounding this issue.

CURWOOD: Christopher Flavin is Vice President of the World Watch Institute in Washington, DC.



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