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Bound for Copenhagen, Obama Faces Climate Change Obstacles

November 25, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Ray Suarez speaks with climate experts about what to expect from President Obama's trip to the Copenhagen climate change summit next month.

JIM LEHRER: Ray Suarez has more on today’s developments.

RAY SUAREZ: We get two views now on both the substance and politics coming from Michael Oppenheimer, professor of geosciences and international affairs at Princeton University — he is also a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which won the Nobel Prize in 2007 — and Samuel Thernstrom, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a former member of the White House Council on Environmental Quality during the George W. Bush administration.

And, Michael Oppenheimer, it wasn’t always clear that President Obama was going to Copenhagen. Do you welcome this decision by the White House?

MICHAEL OPPENHEIMER: Yes. Certainly, it’s a very good development.

The U.S., until recently, was the world’s biggest emitter of these gases. It’s been viewed as the biggest obstacle at the negotiations because of a relatively obdurate position over the last eight years, before the Obama administration, and the U.S. is still the world’s political leader.

Putting that together — together with Obama’s leadership skills, I think this is a very important decision. It will get the negotiations off to a very sound start.

RAY SUAREZ: Samuel Thernstrom, are you glad the president’s going to Copenhagen?

SAMUEL THERNSTROM, resident fellow, American Enterprise Institute: I am glad he’s going. And I think — I agree with Mr. Oppenheimer that it will probably help the negotiations somewhat.

It is surprising the president has chosen to go early in the conference, rather than late, when other heads of states will be arriving. He always said that he would attend if his presence could seal the deal with other global leaders. Hard to seal the deal if you’re not there when the other leaders are attending as well.

RAY SUAREZ: Some of it has to do with the calendar, though, doesn’t it? He will be in the neighborhood, in Oslo…


RAY SUAREZ: … accepting the Nobel Peace Prize…


RAY SUAREZ: … but going to Copenhagen before, rather than after, that.

SAMUEL THERNSTROM: Right. He — he could have gone to Copenhagen on his way back from the Peace Prize.

He also could have decided that attending Copenhagen in the closing days, when the final deal would be made, was his most important priority for his travel schedule that month.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Michael Oppenheimer, along with the announcement that he was going came specific years and specific targets for reduction, using 2005 as a baseline for lowering the emissions of greenhouse gases from all sources in the United States. A significant announcement?

Obama to pressure Congress

Michael Oppenheimer
Princeton University
By putting his force behind these numbers, the president is sort of setting up a negotiating line with the Congress and indicating probably what he feels is the minimum beneath which the Senate shouldn't go.


There had been a thought that the president would refrain from putting anything specific on the table until the Congress had acted. Now, the House has acted. And these numbers are in line with what the House has in their bill, but the Senate has just reported something out of committee. Nothing has reached the floor.

So, by putting his force behind these numbers, the president is sort of setting up a negotiating line with the Congress and indicating probably what he feels is the minimum beneath which the Senate shouldn't go. And it's also a minimum in terms of what the world needs.

To the best as we can tell, a warming of more than a couple of degrees Celsius, about three or four degrees Fahrenheit, puts us in the danger zone as far as global warming is concerned. And these sorts of emissions reductions are consistent with what we need to get a good start in combating that warming.

RAY SUAREZ: But, Professor, is that something new for the United States, specific years and specific reduction percentages?

MICHAEL OPPENHEIMER: Back in the Clinton administration, the U.S. did agree to specific years and specific reduction percentages. And they were embodied in the Kyoto protocol, which the president -- which President Clinton never sent up to the Senate to ratify, and which President Bush withdrew from.

So, during the Bush administration, the -- the U.S. refrained from agreeing to specific targets and timetables. And, at various times, the Bush administration was adamantly opposed to the whole concept. This has now come full circle, as the Obama administration accepts the notion that it's the only way to deal with this problem. We need binding targets. They have to be enforceable. Countries have to have a way to comply.

RAY SUAREZ: Samuel Thernstrom, it's been about a dozen years since the time the professor is talking about. Has a consensus emerged in the United States that means that not only is it a different Senate because there are more Democrats and fewer Republicans than there use to be, but a different Senate and a more likely Senate to pass a reduction target, because more people believe that this is something that's actually happening and a danger to the country and the world?

SAMUEL THERNSTROM: I do think more people believe that than they did at the time that Kyoto was originally negotiated, no question. And I think the Congress is certainly more predisposed towards action.

And, yet, I still think that it -- we will not see a climate bill this year, although it was expected when President Obama was elected. I think we will probably not see a significant bill next year or any time in this term, in this presidential term.

RAY SUAREZ: Why do you say that?

Climate bill unlikely

Samuel Thernstrom
American Enterprise Institute
The basic parameters of the bill that has -- that came out of House was determined on a highly partisan basis. There really was not a significant effort to find common ground with Republicans.

SAMUEL THERNSTROM: I think that President Obama has not been able to put affect the kind of coalition in Congress that would support a bill.

I think the basic parameters of the bill that has -- that came out of House was determined on a highly partisan basis. There really was not a significant effort to find common ground with Republicans on that. And the process only became more partisan when it moved to the Senate, where you had Senator Boxer and committee at loggerheads with all the Republican members of her committee, who eventually boycotted the committee hearing, rather than participate in the markup process.

So, the fact that Senator Boxer was never able to even have a markup on her bill, and there was no opportunity to negotiate common ground with the Republicans on it, means that we have had a process in the Senate that has been virtually paralyzed.

And I think that, going into a difficult election year next year, with a difficult economy, where we will probably still have double-digit unemployment next year, the bills moving in Congress have not been able to address people's concerns about the economic consequences.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor, what do you make the Sam Thernstrom's political analysis and his timeline?

MICHAEL OPPENHEIMER: Well, I disagree with about everything he said. Maybe we should make a wager here. I think there will be legislation that will pass the Senate, and then the bills will be reconciled, and the president will sign it before, I think, around June.

And the reason I believe that is that I think that a bipartisan coalition, heavily weighted with Democrats, but bipartisan nevertheless, will eventually develop in the Senate, with senators like Lindsey Graham and, of course, John McCain showing a strong interest in getting something done about this problem.

And -- and, in the case of McCain, for instance, he's been interested in this proposition for a long time. So, I think that, as the president works through the health care legislation, which has really been the obstacle to getting anything done about virtually anything else, I think climate will be next up.

I think, by the president being very firm today and putting down specific targets, he's basically taken ownership of this issue. And he knows that now he has to get it passed, or else it won't look very good for him. He also knows that the climate is warming, and this is a very serious issue, probably the most important one he will deal with in his term. So, I expect him to fulfill those promises.

RAY SUAREZ: Let's quickly turn in the time we have left to the two other players on the world stage, India and China. The president has had top-level meetings with the leaders from both countries. And, in Judy Woodruff's report, you heard India wishing the American targets had been more ambitious, and China saying any regime shouldn't apply to China, just to the long-term industrial emitting countries.

Professor, quick analysis?

China, India moving on issue

Michael Oppenheimer
Princeton Univeristy
There's been a sea change in the way both China and India appear to view this issue

MICHAEL OPPENHEIMER: Well, there's been a sea change in the way both China and India appear to view this issue.

When I attended the negotiations running up to Kyoto and beyond, they used to sit on their hands largely and do nothing, except throw bombs at the developed countries, like the United States. Recently, there has been a lot more interest in engaging. And there are two reasons for that.

Number one, China is now the world's largest emitter, having surpassed the United States. And it doesn't like getting the fingers pointed at it, instead of the United States. It knows that it's going to be found guilty of not moving to protect the world if it doesn't do something about climate change.

And the second reason is both the Chinese and the Indians have done analyses of what climate change means for their countries. Both of them are very vulnerable. They're countries that are, by and large, poor. They have a lot of exposure. They have a lot of exposure to sea level rise. They have a lot of exposure to drought and extreme heat.

And, internally, their scientists are telling them they need to deal with the problem. So, the handwriting is on the wall for both those countries. Now, that doesn't mean they're going to agree to binding targets as Copenhagen.

What it means is, we're in a negotiating phase now. It will last some years. And, eventually, the Chinese and the Indians, I think, are going to come around to making serious emissions reductions.

RAY SUAREZ: Sam Thernstrom, what do you think you saw from the Chinese and the Indians today?

SAMUEL THERNSTROM: I don't see a sea change in their attitudes. I see consistency with their previous positions.

They're holding firm that they -- yes, they are willing to be proactive on climate change. They're certainly interested in investing heavily in clean energy, which both helps their conventional pollution problems, their energy security problems, and helps them with their public image on the world stage.

But both countries have been very clear in saying that their first commitment is to their millions of citizens who -- who still live in poverty.

RAY SUAREZ: Very quickly, American leaders have long said that, unless the Chinese and the Indians are on board with an American plan, they won't budge. Today, we heard the Chinese leaders saying, we're -- we're not in this. It's really something for the Americans to do, and the E.U.

SAMUEL THERNSTROM: The Americans and the Europeans, yes, yes. That's right.

MICHAEL OPPENHEIMER: I think that's an initial bargaining position. I expect us to make a lot of progress from that point.

SAMUEL THERNSTROM: I don't see a lot of progress coming. And, in fact, even today's White House statement indicated that President Obama's proposed targets were contingent upon action from the developing world as well.

MICHAEL OPPENHEIMER: I think you made an important point, Sam, which is, the Chinese have figured out how to make money off developing renewable energy and efficient automobiles. That, ultimately, is why the Chinese are going to move to solve this problem. And that's why they're going to be cooperative.

And the U.S. should be moving quickly, so they don't get outcompeted by the Chinese, and not worry so much about the Chinese, what they're going to do or what they're not going to do. We should be moving to take the markets that otherwise they're going to get.

RAY SUAREZ: Gentlemen, thank you, both.



JIM LEHRER: Three climate experts offer analysis on what the Copenhagen summit might accomplish on our Web site,