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Binding Pact, Congress Remain Major Climate Hurdles for Obama

December 18, 2009 at 12:00 AM EST
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Judy Woodruff asks two experts to weigh the outcome of the non-binding agreement reached Friday at the international climate summit in Copenhagen.


JIM LEHRER: Judy Woodruff takes it from there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For more about the summit’s outcome and for reaction back here, Daniel Becker. He’s director of Safe Climate Campaign, an advocacy group. He was formerly director of the Sierra Club’s Global Warming Program. And Samuel Thernstrom, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He served on the White House Council on Environmental Quality for President George W. Bush.

Thank you, gentlemen, both for being here.

Daniel Becker, to you first. The president said this is meaningful, an unprecedented breakthrough. How do you see it?

DANIEL BECKER, Safe Climate Campaign: It’s a major disappointment.

To paraphrase a play about a prince from Denmark, a tough, legally binding treaty on climate is not to be. What we were looking for was a tough treaty that was going to commit countries to reducing their emissions to levels that would keep the climate at 2 degrees Celsius warmer than it is today, basically where the scientists have said it is a safe level.

We were looking for accountability, for certainty that the pledges would be kept. We were looking for some funding for the least, the most vulnerable people on Earth, who will face real consequences due to the pollution that we have emitted from our cars and trucks and factories and power plants.

In the end, though, what happened was that the countries weren’t willing to do their fair share. They weren’t willing to sign on to enough emissions reductions. Even President Obama said this isn’t up to the task. And they weren’t willing to agree to the accountability measures that are really necessary.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And I want to get to some of that — points.

But let me come to you, Samuel Thernstrom. Major disappointment, do you see it that way, or not?

SAMUEL THERNSTROM, American Enterprise Institute: By and large, yes, although I think I could say at least one good thing about this agreement, which is that it does move forward, in terms of — it moves out of the framework of a one-size-fits-all agreement that the whole world should all sign on to, which was the Kyoto model and was what was expected to come out of Copenhagen.

And I think it is a little bit more realistic to think that we can get meaningful domestic action through multilateral and bilateral agreements. And, so, I would actually say that one element of this agreement is a step forward.

Aside from that, though, I would agree with Dan that a lot of aspects of this agreement are very disappointing and that the fundamental issues of disagreement between these countries have been papered over through vagueness and pledges, rather than actually being sorted out. And Copenhagen was supposed to be an opportunity to resolve those issues.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Daniel Becker, let me read you something the president said in that news conference.

He said — he said: “This agreement is structured in a way that each nation is going to put concrete commitments in to an appendix. They’re going to lay out each country’s intentions. And those commitments are going to be subject to international consultation.”

He’s saying, no, we couldn’t get binding agreement, but we did get this; this is something.

DANIEL BECKER: It’s something. It’s the good news side.

But coming into this meeting, there were a bunch of countries that made commitments to cut their pollution who had never made those commitments before at those levels. So, China, India, Brazil made substantial commitments to reduce their emissions, not as much as we need.

And the U.S. finally…

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, you’re saying that was already happening? Is that what you’re…

DANIEL BECKER: Well, it was happening on the way in. A lot of these commitments were made a few weeks ago.

And the president made his announcement of the 17 percent cut, which, you know, fits in that category of a promise, but not yet a road map to do it. The next thing that the president can do is use power he’s already got from the Clean Air Act and other existing laws to dramatically cut our emissions. And he started doing that in May when he announced that there will be a 30 percent cut from cars.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Samuel Thernstrom, what about the facts that these changes were being made by a number of countries? The very fact that this conference was held and was coming caused some of these changes to be made, is — does that represent progress?

SAMUEL THERNSTROM: I think that represents very modest progress.

I would disagree with Dan, for instance, when he characterizes the Chinese commitment leading up to Copenhagen as significant. It’s a little hard to know what the Chinese commitment was. The way they made it was rather vague, but I think most analysts think that it’s not much more than business as usual for China.

And, so, I do believe that business as usual for China today is better than it was a few years ago. China is more engaged with this problem. But have we had a breakthrough on the fundamental issues that have divided China and the world? No, we have not, not close.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you see that point on China?

DANIEL BECKER: I agree that China needs to do more. But a 40 to 45 percent cut from the rate of growth that they have today is a substantial step forward.

It’s not where we need to be. But we’re not where we need to be either. And the fact that industry has stymied progress in this country by politicizing the issue, misrepresenting the facts about the issue, and forcing the Congress to a stalemate on a very weak bill is really something that has — you’re seeing the ripple effects in Copenhagen.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Samuel Thernstrom, industry the culprit here?

SAMUEL THERNSTROM: No, I don’t — I don’t think so.

I think, you know, national and international politics, which are basic realities, are the culprit here. You know, China, for instance, again, has refused consistently to commit to a treaty that involves proper verification of their emissions reductions.

Only a few hours ago, President Obama told us that any treaty that didn’t have that verification would be empty words on a page. And, yet, the agreement that was struck in the final hours today apparently has no verification component to it.

And, so, I don’t think we can blame American industry or any industries for that. What we’re dealing with here are different nationalist interests and the failure to overcome those interests.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You want to comment on that?

DANIEL BECKER: The reality is that the oil companies, the auto companies, the utility industry, the coal industry have brought tremendous pressure to bear on Congress and on the administration to do nothing.

They have funded phony scientists, who fog the issues and obfuscate for the American people. And the reality is that many in Congress are afraid to act. And because they are afraid to act, the administration has felt constrained in what they could bring to Copenhagen. And everyone else is looking to us and to the Chinese for action.

The Chinese Communist Party says something happens, it happens. When the Democratic Party or the president of the United States says it happens, there is a big argument over it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Two different systems.

If something can be it — is there anything in here that you could say one can salvage and say, this is what we can pin our hopes, our work on going forward?

SAMUEL THERNSTROM: It’s not clear to me.

I mean, apparently, part of the agreement today was that there would be no binding treaty work towards in 2010, which had been the goal until a few hours ago. So, I think I see incremental progress on these issues, as each nation tries to come to grips with what it can do, realistically, what its domestic political constituencies will support.

But it’s hard to say where — how much progress is being made. It seems more symbolic than substantive at this point.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Where do you see all this going from here, Daniel Becker?

DANIEL BECKER: Well, the world came together, and 192 nations decided we need to take action. They — it is important that they recognize that they didn’t take enough action and that they are going to keep trying.

They need to try a hell of a lot harder than they have been trying. And the United States is going to be looked to by the world as the leader. And if we don’t take the steps that we need to take, we will be buying the advanced technology from the Chinese. So, we should do it for economic reasons, as well as environmental reasons, because our kids are counting on us to do it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you see what happens next?

SAMUEL THERNSTROM: Well, I mean, I think the critical question is, did today’s deal in Copenhagen make it more likely that either a binding international treaty would be signed or that a bill would make it through Congress? And I think the answer is no on both those fronts.

So, I think it’s hard to say what the Obama administration will be able to say they truly accomplished with…

DANIEL BECKER: The good news is, the president can act administratively, and he can cut emissions from power plants as he is cutting them from cars. And we can use energy more efficiently through appliance efficiency standards and lighting standards, that stuff that can happen without Congress having to do any more.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We’re going to leave it there.

Daniel Becker, Samuel Thernstrom, thank you both.

DANIEL BECKER: Thank you for having us.