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Buenos Ares Climate Talks Results: President Clinton Signs Up U.S. to Cut Emissions

Air Date: Week of

Tangible progress has resulted from the climate change talks in Buenos Aires. President Clinton has signed the United States on to the Kyoto Accord, agreeing to cut emissions of greenhouse gases. Now it is up to the U.S. Senate to ratify the decision. Steve Curwood has our report from Argentina.


KNOY: This is Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy. In a long-awaited move, President Clinton has signed a climate treaty designed to combat global warming. The move bolstered the efforts of international delegates gathered in Buenos Aires, Argentina, for a climate change summit. At the conference, US Undersecretary of State Stewart Eisenstat described the US endorsement as one of several important efforts essential to protecting the Earth's climate.

EISENSTAT: Each of these steps represents real progress. Our job here is to build on this momentum.

KNOY: The accord, originally struck last year in Kyoto, Japan, sets binding limits on industrialized nations' greenhouse gas emissions. US Senate ratification of the agreement is needed but is unlikely at this point unless more developing nations voluntarily accept limits. Though a rift between rich and poor nations has stymied progress at the conference, Living on Earth's Steve Curwood reports that the recent tragedy of Hurricane Mitch has infused the delegates with a new sense of urgency.

WOMAN (on microphone): Distinguished delegates, before we turn to the business of the day, I would like to refer to the humanitarian disaster in Central America caused by Hurricane Mitch.

CURWOOD: Hurricane Mitch struck Central America just as the fourth conference of the parties of the UN Climate Change Convention began.

WOMAN: The representative of Indonesia. You have the floor, sir.

INDONESIA REPRESENTATIVE: On behalf of the group 77 and China, I would like to call and invite all brothers and sisters to give the moment of silence for the tragedy that hit our brothers in Central America and also in other parts of the world.

CURWOOD: When the silence ended, many, including Melinda Kimball, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for the US, wondered if climate change could have played a role in fostering the lethal hurricane.

KIMBALL: I think it should give us all very careful pause, because I think that while it's impossible to connect single weather events at this stage to climate change, it is this type of event that we would expect to occur if what we are predicting about climate change comes to pass. And it's horrible.

(Milling sounds)

CURWOOD: Delegates didn't need to follow media reports to feel the impact of the weather. At one point torrents of rain fell on the conference center and flooded several office suites, including those of the Global Climate Coalition, a group of oil, coal, and other fossil fuel and manufacturing executives who doubt that climate change is a problem. When I stopped by, the Coalition's John Grasser was in the office.

(To Grasser) We understood that there was quite a flood back here.

GRASSER: (laughs) There sure was. You'd go like this and it would splash up. Just this whole area.

CURWOOD: Now you don't think this rain has anything to do with climate change, do you?

GRASSER: I think it's all part of natural weather variation.

CURWOOD: John Gummer, a member of the British delegation, as well as consultant to the government of Argentina, went head to head with climate change skeptics during his recent tenure as a conservative Secretary of State for the Environment. He continues today as a member of Parliament. I asked Mr. Gummer if the hurricane added any urgency to the negotiations.

GUMMER: Well it has, because it shows that what we're getting is extreme weather more regularly than before, and we will see more of this. It seems to me that in the end, the United States, for example, will only react when they discover that what has happened in Managua, what has happened in Tegucigalpa, could happen in the middle of Florida or in the middle of California. It's then that people will tell Exxon to forget their stories and get out there and do something about it.

(Music plays, whistling and clapping)

CURWOOD: Like the young adults gathered in a park across from the conference hall, Argentina is seeking its place in the world a decade and a half after ending military rule. Argentina agreed to host this year's session in part as a way to showcase its development. In recent years it's had remarkable economic Groth, but claims its greenhouse gases have risen very little if at all. And while India, China, Brazil, and almost all of the other developing nations are insisting that the US and other industrialized nations reduce their emissions first, Argentina became the first to break ranks and respond to the call from the US for meaningful participation in the Kyoto Protocol. As he spoke to the delegates, Argentine President Carlos Menem alluded to the fierce resistance he faced in making the pledge to limit greenhouse gases.

MENEM: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: Argentina does not wish to make its effort outside the system. We want to establish targets within the framework of the convention. We have not been able to do it so far. But we shall continue to work to be able to do so at the fifth meeting of the conference.

CURWOOD: The White House and the US delegation applauded the move. Todd Stern is President Clinton's top advisor on climate change.

STERN: I think President Menem's speech is a major breakthrough. I think this is exactly the kind of thing that will constitute meaningful participation in such a way as to allow us to submit the Kyoto Protocol to the Senate.

CURWOOD: But Senate critics of the Kyoto Accord, including Republican Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, were far from satisfied.

HAGEL: This isn't even close to meaningful participation. What participation? There is no participation. He said that they would voluntarily do something, but we're going to talk about meaningful participation, then let's ask questions like what are you going to do? When are you going to do it? How are you going to do it?

CURWOOD: It is indeed unclear how Argentina might subject itself to limits on greenhouse gas emissions. President Menem suggested creating a new category of participants in the protocol, perhaps made up of the wealthier developing countries. But he offered no further details. A number of open-ended aspects of the protocol have yet to be nailed down. Perhaps the most contentious concern the flexibility mechanisms for achieving emissions limits. One, called the Clean Development Mechanism, would give industrial countries credit for emissions reductions in exchange for investing in the environmentally-friendly projects of emerging nations. Other mechanisms would let developed nations trade emissions rights among themselves. With so much to be decided in the future, there was no rush of other developing nations to join Argentina with a pledge for a voluntary limit on emissions, save for the tiny Central Asian republic of Kazakstan. Indeed, many developing nations said such a move was premature, and that while any country should feel free to impose limits on itself, no developing nation should be forced to accept limits before the richest countries have acted. China and India are the major proponents of this position. Together, they represent almost the half the people on the planet, but emit a much smaller fraction of the world's greenhouse gases. Suresh Prubhu is India's Minister of the Environment.

PRUBHU: Those countries which contribute the most to global environmental degradation must bring down their emission levels first, start implementing that. So if they implement all that first, then obviously we can always move forward.

CURWOOD: In essence, then, the large developing countries argue that the North is not playing fair, and that any scheme that eventually involves the poor nations must be based on principles of equity. Sunita Narain is Deputy Director of the Center for Science and the Environment in New Delhi.

NARAIN: If you look at the current inequalities in the world, it's quite amazing. Because in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, one US citizen is equal to 25 Indians, 33 Pakistanis, 42 Moldavians, 85 Sri Lankans, and 125 Bangladeshis, 250 Butanese, and 500 Nepalese.

CURWOOD: Ms. Narain and many others suggest that if the US wants to involve developing nations under an emissions cap, the goal should be a single worldwide per-capita standard. Over time, the developed world would reduce its emissions and the developing world could increase them until the levels are equal. Britain's John Gummer says without a system that deals with equity, efforts to get the large developing nations to agree to limits are doomed.

GUMMER: Since the decline of Empire, industrially and economically, we have assumed that rich countries out of their riches can help poor countries. But we've always done it from the position of superiority. We've been the donors; they've been the receivers. Now, we've both got to give. That is a totally different relationship. So it really is the first time that we're in this boat together, not just for philosophic or theological reasons about brotherhood of man or fatherhood of god, it's about something quite different. It is the practicalities that if you want China on board, you've got to treat China like a partner and not treat her as a kind of recipient of imperialist donations.

CURWOOD: Delegates agreed to set up a plan for working on the remaining issues in the years ahead, recognizing that grappling with the complexities of climate change could take a very long time. Although nature may not wait.

(A tango plays)

CURWOOD: In some ways, the process is reminiscent of the tango. It seems you can't smile and perform its intricate steps at the same time. One must suffer a little to achieve. In Buenos Aires, I'm Steve Curwood.

(Tango continues up and under)

KNOY: Our report on the climate change conference in Buenos Aires was brought to us with help from producer Daniel Grossman.



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