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

Climate Action As A Race to the Top

Air Date: Week of

Thousands gathered at the 2009 UN Climate Summit in Copenhagen, Denmark in support of global climate action. (Photo: Marc Kjerland; Flickr CC-BY-SA-2.0)

International climate summits to date have brought disputes and stalling not agreement and action. Host Steve Curwood discusses tha latest UN meeting and his blueprint for ending inaction with Former Colorado Senator and climate negotiator, Timothy Wirth.


CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Boston and PRI, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. On September 23rd, more than 120 heads of state will take time out from the opening of the General Assembly of the United Nations in New York to hold a brief Climate Summit. The session is scheduled to come on the heels of what’s being billed as the largest climate march in history on the streets of New York City, September 21st. Back in 1990, the UN enthusiastically began hammering out international climate protection agreements and treaties, but for years the results have been disappointing. Tim Wirth is a one-time Senator from Colorado, and the former President of the UN Foundation. With former Senator Tom Daschle of North Dakota, he’s written a comprehensive blueprint for how to come to an agreement that every nation can back and find beneficial. He joins us on the line to lay out his thinking.

WIRTH: First of all I think we’re at an interesting inflection point from talk to action. I mean, people are now starting to understand, I think, much more deeply the urgency of the issue, and second are starting to see that there are a great number things that they can be doing, that's in their national interest, in their economic interest. So as those two come together, I think we have an opportunity to close the gap between the urgent need to reduce carbon emissions and the political reality around the world.

CURWOOD: Now, you write that the principal elements that need to come out of a grand deal in Paris next year involve reaffirming the basic global objectives to prevent more damage to the climate and instituting firm national targets, rather than an international treaty. So what's the advantage of that?

A Global Day of Action for Climate: A mass demonstration and march on December 12th, 2009 during the UN Climate Summit in Copenhagen. Organizer intended The People’s Climate March in New York on September 21st, 2014 to be one of the biggest ever. (Photo: Greenpeace Finland from Helsinki, Finland; Wikimedia CC-BY-2.0)

WIRTH: Well, the advantage of that is pragmatism. I mean, there is no way we're going to get an international treaty. The Senate can't even ratify the basic treaty on disabilities that was brought to it, or something as palpably in the U.S. national interest as the law of the sea. How in the world do we think that the United States Senate, at this point, is going to ratify an international treaty? If that is the reality, which I think it is, then you have to figure out, well, what do we do differently? And what we’re proposing is a number of individual steps, or what we call building blocks, that have to be taken anyway, and will ultimately lead to the kind of treaty we might be able to get in five years or 10 years.

CURWOOD: What do you say to critics who say that you’ve got to have a binding agreement here—if you don't make this mandatory it won't happen?

WIRTH: Well, I mean, that's a position to take, but that's not going to happen, so why keep banging your head against the wall? You know, I think the people who are arguing for a treaty are a little bit like the test dummies for automobile safety. You know, you ram the car into the wall, and then you back it up and the heads are banging around and so on. And then you ram the car into the wall again, you know. We’re not going to get a treaty right now, so let’s figure out what we do instead.

CURWOOD: Back in Copenhagen in 2009, the United States pledged that the developed countries would mobilize $100 billion dollars a year to address what's going on with climate disruption. Without some sort of ironclad agreement, less-developed countries are pretty nervous that they're not going to see any of this money.

Renewable energy including wind power is a building block in Tim Wirth’s plan for climate action. (Photo: Alex Ferguson; Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0)

WIRTH: Well, I think there are two different kinds of finance in all of this. Traditionally, people have said, "Oh, this has got to come from the official government assistance, you know, from foreign aid,” and some of that's going to be needed to help countries, but much more important is mobilizing the pools of capital that are available from the private sector—that now are seeing very significant and promising markets for themselves. If you look at some of the big international financial institutions, for example, are already committing tens of billions of dollars, pledging more than that. There's lots of money around. It's a matter of mobilizing it and making sure that the rules are right, so that the rate of return that financial institutions are getting is comparable to what they're getting elsewhere. Which brings us right back to another point, this divest movement related to investments and fossil fuels: I think it's the fastest movement that I've seen in terms of climate actions by citizens across the world. Many, many groups are now saying that they are no longer going to invest in the exploration for or development of further sources of fossil fuels—we just don't need them—but let's invest instead into renewables and efficiency.

CURWOOD: So, obviously, you see your blueprint as practical, but how far do you think the necessary players - I'm thinking of the United States, China, the Europeans - how much are they aboard with this idea?

WIRTH: That's a very good question. I think were going to find out more about the United States posture at the Asia-Pacific meetings when President Obama is in China for a day or two with President Xi. None of this effect is going to happen unless a major political agreement gets reached between the United States and China. Without that, it's hard to see the maintenance and sustaining of the international momentum that's going to be necessary to hold the temperatures of the world below the 2-degree, the red line. The United States and China, I think, will be directly responsible if that does not happen.

CURWOOD: How committed do you think the White House is to this approach? They're getting sniped at ..."Oh, they're going around the U.S. Senate. Oh, there goes Obama again; he’s ignoring the will of the people."

Former Colorado Senator and President of the UN Foundation Timothy Wirth is a longtime proponent of climate action. He speaks at the 2013 National Clean Energy Summit in Las Vegas. (Photo: Courtesy of Timothy Wirth)

WIRTH: I think the Obama White House is by and large very committed to this. You see that in the very important regulations that the White House has put out for the Environmental Protection Agency. The White House also has to back this with all kinds of other measures. In there, the records are a little thinner. For example, in my home state of Colorado they're just trying to let a huge coal lease again, which would allow coal companies to go into some very, very promising public lands, take the coal out, ship it to the west coast and ship it to China, and the administration is supporting that as well. So I think their posture has to be consistent throughout, and they're not there yet.

CURWOOD: So China has announced pretty significant plans to reduce first their carbon intensity, and then they say they're going to have a national carbon trading program and such. They seem very committed in moving forward. Does that make the U.S. with its ambivalence the skunk at the picnic here?

WIRTH: Well, as the U.S. has got ambiguities about their position, so do the Chinese. That's why it's terribly important, it seems to me, that the smartest thing that the two countries could do would be to appoint a czar on each side—a very senior person who is really assistant to the President with an enormous amount of authority over the interagency process and have that person's analog figure in China. So you have two people working out their problems together and developing the analysis, developing the research, sharing the technology. These are the things that have to be done. You know, India's going to be watching very carefully, and they'll be the next one on board. And then with Brazil and South Africa and, of course, the European Union and the Japanese would be on board any kind of a deal like that, so what the U.S. and China do becomes terribly, terribly important and let's have a firm, cooperative, real leadership position from these two giant countries.

CURWOOD: Tim Wirth is a former Senator from Colorado and founding President of the UN Foundation. Thanks much for taking the time, Tim.

WIRTH: Thank you, Steve. Always a privilege.



More on the UN Foundation’s 2014 Climate Summit in New York

Read former US Senators Tim Wirth and Tom Daschle’s “A Blueprint to End Paralysis Over Global Action on Climate”


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