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Time Running Out for Climate Change Talks as Nations Clash

December 15, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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In Copenhagen, a rift continues to divide developing countries and wealthier, developed nations. Ray Suarez reports from the climate summit where time is running out to strike a deal on combating global warming.

RAY SUAREZ: The Chinese special representative to the climate talks, Yu Qingtai, committed China to greenhouse gas reduction, but rejects any efforts like those demanded by the United States, to check China’s compliance. And he warned against using trade as a weapon, suggested by Congress’ climate change bill passed in September.

YU QINGTAI, climate envoy, China: We oppose the actions of any country that sets up new trade barriers under the excuse of protecting the planet.

RAY SUAREZ: And Yu said he’s keenly aware, as are the other negotiators, that time is running out for an agreement. But he said the industrialized countries, long-term, heavy users of fossil fuels, aren’t even facing up to their responsibilities now. And he switched to English to make his point.

YU QINGTAI: There’s no regrets. They didn’t even come up with something like, “Sorry. I failed.” It’s just — it’s a fact of life. You better live — accept that.

RAY SUAREZ: Yu said he remains optimistic a worthwhile deal can be reached before more than 100 heads of state arrive later this week.

Along with the continued tensions between China and the U.S., another primary pillar of these talks is the confrontation between rich and poor or, as citizens of less developed countries would have it, between the countries that created the problem and the countries suffering climate change’s worst effects.

Today brought testimony from a Peruvian farmer who has watched the glaciers that supply his water melt, a Pacific Islander representing what may become the first countries to disappear from world maps, a Bangladeshi driven from her land by rising saltwater, and a Ugandan farmer who has tried to feed a large family as too little, then too much, rain falls.

CONSTANCE OKOLLET: Mostly 2007, that’s when we — we saw changes, from no more rains to drastic rains, from no more rains to flood, from no more sunshine to droughts. So, there has been a lot of changes in climate from that year up to today.

RAY SUAREZ: Constance Okollet spoke speaking to a packed meeting room at the Copenhagen conference, telling her audience, fairness demands that the world’s poor receive support from the industrialized world to deal with a life-and-death challenge she did nothing to create.

CONSTANCE OKOLLET: The reason why we need this money, the poverty level is increasing day and night because of the climate changes, and of which the climate changes, they’re the ones making us to suffer the effects of climate change.

RAY SUAREZ: Former Irish President Mary Robinson and retired South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu were on hand to add their own calls for the wealthy industrialized countries to make changes now, from self-interest every bit as much as from charity.

MARY ROBINSON, former president, Ireland: If we don’t get an agreement here, we have posed an enormous threat to our one world. And I have four grandchildren who will be in their 40s in 2015. I do know, as a grandmother, as an Irish grandmother, whether they will have a safe world. American grandmothers don’t know if their grandchildren will have a safe world. American younger mothers do not know if their children will have a safe world in their 40s.

RAY SUAREZ: Not so fast, says Bjorn Lomborg. The Danish teacher and writer on environmental issues is a climate change skeptic, but not in the way that’s usually meant. Maybe he should be called a climate change conference skeptic.

BJORN LOMBORG: Maybe it would be a good thing for climate if this meeting was to fail because, fundamentally, it seems to me that we’re just doing the same failed strategy for the last 18 years. You know, we’re promising to make grand carbon cuts, and then we won’t do them.

RAY SUAREZ: And Lomborg said large-scale aid to the world’s poorest is no longer popular. So, the world’s advocates for the poor are just redrafting their demands, using climate change instead. The Dane said if you really want to help Constance Okollet and her village in Uganda, fight poverty, not initiatives.

BJORN LOMBORG: Clearly, we need to deal with her problems, but also, clearly, the majority of her problems are not caused by climate change. They’re caused by simple poverty. For every time we can save one person from dying from malnutrition through climate change policies, the same amount of money spent on malnutrition policies could save 5,000 people.

RAY SUAREZ: And while you’re fighting poverty, he says, work on research and development that will make new energy sources fully competitive with fossil fuels. And, once they are, you won’t need a conference and treaties to force countries to be cleaner.

Speaking to the conference this evening, Nobel peace laureate Kenyan environmental activist Wangari Maathai said the industrialized world doesn’t yet feel the effects of climate change the same way the world’s poorest countries do and may then be reluctant to sign binding agreements.

WANGARI MAATHAI: Therefore, it is up to the developing world to convince them that the threat is real and it will affect them do, despite their perceived invulnerability at the moment.

RAY SUAREZ: Maathai, like every prominent speaker in Copenhagen, has said publicly an agreement by Friday is still possible.

JEFFREY BROWN: A short time ago, I talked to Ray in Copenhagen.

Ray, some fairly blunt talk there from the Chinese representative. The Chinese have said they had set a target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. So now the issue is how to make sure they’re following through?

RAY SUAREZ: Well, the United States would like to put in verification architecture, so that people could check whether all countries, not just China, are living up to the commitments they make on the international stage.

China says, in response, hey, look we set some very ambitious targets. We’re investing a lot in alternative fuels and other alternative energy sources. And it’s really, for them, a matter of national pride and really autonomy and sovereignty that says, no, we have set the targets, and we’re going to keep them.

JEFFREY BROWN: And they also said in your interview that they at least were questioning, at the same time, whether the U.S. was living up to its commitments.

RAY SUAREZ: Not just the U.S. but the whole industrialized world.

A lot of countries made assurances at the Kyoto round in 1997 that they simply didn’t follow through on in the earlier years of this century. So, almost with a little impatience and a little testiness, the Chinese negotiator pointed that out and said, hey, look. You, your countries, did not live up what you — to what you told the world you were going to do. And now you want to put a verification regime on us?

And he was really annoyed that, in effect, the Western and industrialized world negotiator said, well, the fact that we didn’t live up to those past assurances, the past is past. Let’s start from square one with newly set baselines, not the baselines we were using in 1997.

JEFFREY BROWN: There’s also that key continuing issue between the — well, how much the richer nations will help out the poorer nations to implement any changes. What — what — what’s going on there?

RAY SUAREZ: Everybody on all sides of this argument concedes that, even if all emissions were ended today, global warming, because of the built-up forces in the system, would continue on for years to come, even if there was no further CO2.

So, the poorer countries are saying, look, we’re the ones with the resources — with so little resources, that we’re unable to adapt inside our economies, adapt our agriculture, adapt our living places to this newer, hotter, dryer, and wetter planet.

So, there should be transfers from those countries that are causing the warming to those that are suffering the most from it. And, so far, there’s been no — there have been some tentative stabs at it by the industrial countries. There have been some assurances that money would be forthcoming, but no specific dates, no specific amounts, no specific duration for a program that would begin now.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. And I gather that, today, a draft circulated there that — that left out specific emission targets and financing amounts and mechanisms.

RAY SUAREZ: All this stuff sounds very technical, but, really, it boils down to this. How much of what gases, where, and, most importantly, what year are you going to use as your baseline? Are you going to use 1990 and say increases would be measured from what we were already emitting in 1990? Are you going to use 2000, or even this year, and say that reductions have to be based on what you’re emitting this year?

The Chinese, for all their complaining about the West’s failure to meet its targets, are trying to use 1990, a time when China was a very different country, much less industrialized, as its baseline for computing future allowances for emissions into the atmosphere.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, slow progress, at best, so far there.

Now, we have both been to international conferences before. And, usually, a lot of stuff is precooked, right? There’s a lot that has already been settled on or agreed to, especially when you have got a lot of world leaders showing — about to show up.

So, what’s your sense of what’s going on in this case?

RAY SUAREZ: Well, today, the executive director of the Copenhagen talks and the head of the U.N. climate change agency held a news conference together, where they assured the world’s press that the negotiations were continuing, were on track, progress was being made.

And even though drafts were being circulated with just brackets around where the numbers should be, there was a sense that those two very important offices tried to give the rest of us that things would take on a faster pace once the — the heads of state started to arrive in their numbers starting tomorrow evening.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what do people tell you privately, though? Are they as hopeful?

RAY SUAREZ: Well, privately, people are saying they just can’t believe that everything can be wrapped up by Friday. And the talk now is shifting to what an acceptable posture would be for the world’s leaders to leave this place with something, rather than nothing, what the something would be, and how preferable that would be to, in effect, shrugging your shoulders, admitting failure and going home.

There has been so much talk coming out of Copenhagen this week about the dire situation of the world’s atmosphere, the world’s waters, and what’s coming down the road, that to, in effect, leave here empty-handed would be almost politically unacceptable, certainly — certainly, in many countries that have both committed to reducing their emissions and are also now sort of wrapping their heads around the fact that they’re right behind — right in — in the crosshairs of what’s coming if the climate scientists’ projections are right.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Ray Suarez in Copenhagen, nice to talk to you. And we will stay in touch this week.

RAY SUAREZ: Thanks a lot, Jeff.