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Did Warsaw conference put world on track towards ‘new global climate regime’?

November 27, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
World leaders convened for the Warsaw Climate Change Conference this month, working towards an expanded commitment to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Judy Woodruff talks to ActionAid USA's Brandon Wu and Harvard University's Robert Stavins about the political challenges ahead in order to curb climate change on a global scale.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The devastating typhoon that struck the Philippines illustrated the vulnerability of island nations to extreme weather and added a spark to the international debate already under way over who bears the costs from climate change.

MARCIN KOROLEC, Environment Minister of Poland: Climate is a global issue, global problem, and a global opportunity at the same time.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The United Nations’ 12-day conference on climate change began earlier this month with an audacious goal: a new agreement to cut climate-altering greenhouse gas emissions.

They met with renewed purpose. Typhoon Haiyan had just slammed into the Philippines with 195-mile-per-hour winds. Among the strongest storms ever recorded, it caused massive flooding, widespread destruction and took at least 5,200 lives.

Although scientists have not pointed to global warming as the direct cause for massive superstorms, they caution that greenhouse gas-fueled climate change could bring about extreme weather. A delegate from the Philippines went on hunger strike to demand an ambitious deal.

NADEREV YEB SANO, Philippines Climate Change Commissioner: We stand together on this urgent call for climate action and solidarity among the most vulnerable peoples on Earth.

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JUDY WOODRUFF: Last week in Poland, talks focused not only on the global effects, but on a shared responsibility for curbing emissions.

CHRISTIANA FIGUERES, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change: Every single country, small or large, every single sector, every single city has to contribute, because, otherwise, we’re not going to be able to change the trajectory of greenhouse gases.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But the great disparity between the emissions produced by the industrialized leading economies of the world and developing nations hung over the talks. How to finance assistance for developing nations to build cleaner-emitting industry was a major issue, as were demands for compensation by nations already suffering effects of climate change.

A European Union official looked at that proposal skeptically.

CONNIE HEDEGAARD, European Commissioner for Climate Change: We cannot have a system where there will be automatic compensation whenever severe weather events are happening one place or the other around the planet. You will understand why that is not feasible.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The talks were fractious. Environmental activists staged a walkout, disappointed at what they saw as lack of progress. Marathon negotiations ended early Sunday, pointing towards a make-or-break agreement in 2015.

Now I’m joined by two people who attended the U.N. climate conference in Warsaw.

Brandon Wu is a senior policy analyst at ActionAid USA, an international development organization. And Robert Stavins is professor of business and government and director of the Environmental Economics Program at Harvard University.

Welcome to you both.

I want to ask both of you just in a sentence, why was this conference held?

And I will start with you, Robert Stavins.

What question or questions was it supposed to resolve?

ROBERT STAVINS, Harvard University: The basic question that needed to be resolved in Warsaw — and I think it was accomplished — was whether or not the countries of the world could remain on the track that was started two years ago at a similar conference in Durban to build up to Paris two years from now, where a final agreement needs to be reached, which is essentially the post-Kyoto international climate change agreement.

If that sounds like the goal was mainly procedural, you’re right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Brandon Wu, how would you put it in a sentence? What — what was supposed to be resolve here?

BRANDON WU, ActionAid USA: So, I agree with that.

I think that’s right. We were supposed to be on a track towards a new global climate regime agreed in 2015. However, there also needed to be some more concrete things put on the table. There needed to be more clarity from developed countries on what is called climate finance, which is money for developing countries to help deal with the impacts of climate change and their own emissions.

And there needed to be a mechanism created around what’s called loss and damage, which is how countries deal with impacts after they have happened, so, for example, how the Philippines can deal with Typhoon Haiyan after that’s happened, how we can help as an international community.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let’s talk about — before we talk about what went wrong — and there were some problems — Robert Stavins, what was accomplished? Was anything accomplished at this conference?

ROBERT STAVINS: Well, one of the things that was accomplished — and I know this will sound mild or trivial — is that no harm was done. That is, the countries of the world stayed on track to Paris to put together a new climate agreement, one that will have a substantially larger foundation in terms of the number of participating countries than what we currently have under the Kyoto regime.

That may not sound like much, but in this world of annual climate negotiations that are exceptionally challenging, that’s what success looks like.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Brandon Wu, would you agree that that was one positive that came out of this?

BRANDON WU: I think that’s one positive.

I think that that’s the political reality. Right? The political reality is, these negotiations are incredibly challenging. It’s very difficult to get countries to agree to, say, ambitious targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But there is also a scientific reality that we’re faced with.

It’s a scientific reality that we’re on track for a world that is going to be massively warmer than it was before the industrial era. And we know — or we at least have some sense of how catastrophic some of the impacts from that might be. And so we have a scientific reality where we need to deal with this problem urgently, and then we have a political reality where we can’t. And we need to shift that political reality.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I hear you.

And so let’s talk about the specifics, Robert Stavins, of what didn’t happen here. For one thing, there was a massive walkout. Some 800 participants just walked out of the meetings one day. What was the main disagreement there over?

ROBERT STAVINS: Well, I think there was rampant disappointment, particularly from members of civil society, from activist groups.

And I actually understand that disappointment. And the way I see it is that the current structure that we have been using in the Kyoto protocol, is equivalent — if you allow me to use a metaphor, it’s equivalent to trying to build a 70-story skyscraper on top of a foundation that is 10 feet by 10 feet.

You may be able to build the first floor. You might even do the second floor, but you’re never going to get the sufficient ambition that is required. The Kyoto protocol, that current structure we have, which includes a very limited set of countries, part of what the industrialized world is, it accounts for only 14 percent — 1-4 — 14 percent of global emissions.

What’s happening now is that the countries of the world are trying to establish a larger foundation. That includes all countries, importantly, the key, large, growing countries, plus the rich countries of the world, in a larger foundation, so that we can build a meaningful agreement to really address this crucial problem.

I think activists and many members of civil society look at that and they see that, wait, we had one floor built, and now they’re going back to building the foundation. But I think that was essential.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Brandon Wu, you were part of — of this walkout. You supported the idea.

But what — and what about this question that Mr. Stavins has just raised, that — this idea that, originally, it was a small number of developed countries who were bearing most of the responsibility, but now the world is changing, there’s growth in a lot of countries that were previously considered developing and needy, and that the balance and responsibility needs to shift?

BRANDON WU: That’s true.

However, the devil’s in the details. So, I would agree that all countries have to do their fair share to deal with the global problem of climate change, but how you define fair share exactly is where we run into disagreements.

And just — just to — just to raise the oppositional points about the world, the world is changing, you know, there are some countries we considered poor that are no longer so poor, even now, if we look at the developed world, so the U.S., other industrialized countries, which is about less than 20 percent of the population, those countries are responsible for over 70 percent of the greenhouse gases that are in the Earth’s atmosphere.

And these are countries, therefore, that have a responsibility to deal with this problem, whereas countries like the Philippines, Bangladesh, people in those countries have very little to do with the climate crisis, and yet they’re the people who are most vulnerable to its impacts.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me come back to you, Robert Stavins.

What about that point? Yes, these other countries like China, India, Brazil are growing, and they are growing fast, but it is the far-along developed countries that have contributed principally to the pollution and emissions that are in the atmosphere.

ROBERT STAVINS: So we could either look at the problem by looking backwards or look at the problem by looking forwards.

If we look backwards at the problem, historically, the bulk of the emissions in the atmosphere, as Mr. Wu points out correctly, have come from what are now the industrialized world. I should point out, however, that although the United States is the leader in cumulative emissions to the atmosphere, China is going to surpass the United States, as it already has, of course, in annual emissions, is going to surpass the United States in cumulative emissions, depending upon the rates of economic growth of the two countries, somewhere within a decade or maybe two decades.

If we’re look forward, which I think we need to do if we want to reduce emissions, then it’s a very different picture, because if all of the industrialized countries, essentially the OECD, if those countries were to cut their emissions, not by 20 percent, not by 50 percent, not by 80 percent, but by 100 percent, completely eliminate their emissions, nevertheless, next year and the year after, worldwide emissions will increase, because 62 percent of worldwide emissions are now coming from countries that are outside of the existing agreement.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, given that and just in less than a minute, Brandon Wu, how do you bridge the gap? You said the devil is in the details. How do you bridge the gap, given where — the lack of progress at a meeting like the one in Warsaw?

BRANDON WU: There’s a gap in trust. There’s a gap in trust.

So, I agree, countries like China and India, they will need to do something in the future to reduce emissions, because it’s not going to work if it’s only developed countries that do this. But the fact of the matter is, developed countries agreed to reduce emissions decades ago. And what we have seen from them is — has been a lack of action. They have not reduced emissions to the extent that they need to.

They haven’t provided money to help developing countries reduce their own emissions and adapt to impacts. And so developing countries have very little reason to trust that, if they move forward on their actions to reduce climate change impacts, that developed countries will follow along.

And so they’re waiting for developed countries to take the lead, as they are legally obligated to in the U.N.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We hear you both.

Brandon Wu, Robert Stavins, with a look at this climate change conference, thank you.