TOPICS > Science > Coping with Climate Change

As another report urges action, how can U.S. overcome obstacles to effective climate policy?

April 15, 2014 at 6:18 PM EST
The latest U.N. report on climate change suggests ways to potentially ward off the worst impacts of rising emissions. But these scenarios come with real costs, and have faced political opposition as well as reluctance from the American public. Judy Woodruff learns more from Robert Stavins of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and Maura Cowley of the Energy Action Coalition.
LISTEN SEE PODCASTS

TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: This week’s latest U.N. report on climate change warns of the urgent need for global action in the next five to 15 years, if countries want to ward off the worst impacts of rising emissions.

It also lays out numerous scenarios of what could be done. But those options come with different costs, and in the U.S., there’s been opposition in Congress and often reluctance among much of the public to some big changes.

We look at the economic and political challenges with Robert Stavins. He’s a lead co-author of the report. He’s an environmental economist at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. And Maura Cowley, she’s the executive director of the Energy Action Coalition, which includes 30 youth-led groups.

And we thank you both for being with us.

Robert Stavins, let me start with you.

This report stresses the urgency of doing something now, implementing new policies. Give us an example of a policy that the United States needs to implement in the near term.

ROBERT STAVINS, Harvard Kennedy School of Government: Well, Judy, what’s become clear is that, for this country, for the United States, the only approach that conceivably would achieve meaningful emissions reductions, such as those that are talked about in the new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, would be an economy-wide carbon pricing system.

That might be a cap-and-trade system, as has been denigrated, and obviously passed the House, but not the Senate, or it could perhaps a revenue-neutral carbon tax, but something that would be pervasive throughout the economy and send the right price signals.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And is this something you think, in today’s political environment, lawmakers could embrace?

ROBERT STAVINS: Well, in today’s political environment, what is feasible is what is happening in the United States, and that is that the administration is taking some action under existing regulations and through executive orders.

It’s hard to do much more than that. However, it’s possible they will actually be proposing a cap-and-trade system, a tradable permit system, under one of the regulatory initiatives — initiatives for power plants.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let me just pick up with that with Maura Cowley, because the last few decades, you look at whenever Congress has been asked or seriously considered action to try to get polluters to pay for their pollution, for carbon emission, it’s failed. And lawmakers who voted for it often went on to lose at the polls in November.

How do you surmount that kind of opposition, that kind of problem?

MAURA COWLEY, Energy Action Coalition: Well, I think you surmount that by taking action on climate change and reaching out to young voters.

Right now, young voters are the largest voting bloc in the country, soon to outnumber the baby boomers at the polls. And over 73 percent of young people say they will vote against an elected official who doesn’t take action on climate change. So if you want young people to vote for you, taking action on climate change is the right way to go.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But are you saying, in most states, in most congressional districts right now, young people hold the preponderance of votes?  Because I still hear lawmakers saying young people aren’t turning out. MAURA COWLEY: Well, young people elected Barack Obama in 2008 and turned out again in record numbers in 2012. So I think young people, the millennial generation is here to stay when it comes to voting.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Robert Stavins, there are also a number of politicians, I think in particular Republicans, who question the science, even, question whether carbon emissions contribute to pollution. How do you address that kind of opposition or doubt?

ROBERT STAVINS: Well, Judy, in my view, the climate skepticism that you’re referring to that exists among some people in the Republican Party, particularly the more conservative parts of the Republican Party, really doesn’t have to do with climate change itself. It really has to do with political polarization that’s been taking place, as the Republican Party has moved gradually to the right for a whole set of structural reasons.

And so what we have now is an ideological divide. So, tragically, the debates in the United States, the political debates on climate change, are more akin to the debates on an issue like abortion than they are on debates which are fundamentally about the science and thinking about what’s wise and best for the country and best for the planet.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, continuing in that — in that line of thinking, Maura Cowley, you know, you’re — as we said, you’re the head of this grassroots group representing different — different organizations of young people, but the polls right now in this country, we looked at them, show, while a majority of Americans say, yes, we think climate change is real, but doing something about it ranks near the bottom.

They’re more concerned about the jobs, about the economic, about — in some cases, about health care than they are — climate always seems to come up dragging up the rear.

MAURA COWLEY: Yes, but I think right now what we’re seeing across the country in terms of extreme weather is really starting to change attitudes about climate change, from superstorm Sandy, to Hurricane Katrina, the droughts in California, the wildfires in Colorado.

People are waking up to the realities of climate change and they’re demanding that their leaders take action. We have had hundreds of people getting arrested over the Keystone XL pipeline. Right now, students at Washington University…

JUDY WOODRUFF: You mean part of your coalition?

MAURA COWLEY: Yes.

And we have students at universities, Washington, Saint Louis — Washington University in Saint Louis right on a multiday sit-in, demanding that their university sever ties with Peabody Energy, or Peabody Coal, one of the largest polluters in the world.

And so there’s a rising, swelling momentum right now against the fossil fuel industries and to demand that our leaders take action on climate change.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Robert Stavins, how much of the responsibility lies with the United States and other developed countries and how much with the developing countries, which are now increasing their use of fossil fuels as they expand their economies?

ROBERT STAVINS: Well, that’s a very important issue.

And let’s not denigrate the American population and assume that they’re foolish because of their unwillingness to take on action and to take on costs. We have to recognize, first of all, we’re asking a current generation of people in the United States to take on costs — or in all countries — to take on costs to benefit future generations, because the worst impacts of climate change are going to be off in the future, not this year or next year.

And then, in addition, what you brought up is the global distribution issue, and that is, you know, the United States has now been surpassed by China as the world’s largest emitter. In terms of the cumulative greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the United States is still in first place, but at current rates of economic growth, China is going to surpass us even in the stock in the atmosphere within a decade or two, depending on various factors.

If we look overall at developed compared to developing countries, the OECD countries, the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, essentially the industrialized world, emissions in these countries are flat to declining. The rapid growth is in the large, rapidly growing, emerging countries, China, India, Brazil, Korea, South Africa, Mexico, and Indonesia.

They need to be involved. If they don’t get on the climate policy train, it’s not leaving the station. A different question, though, is whether or not they have to pay for their tickets.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, and it’s a much bigger subject than we can deal with right now.

But, Maura Cowley, in talking to the American people, how important is it that they understand that this is a shared responsibility with other countries?

MAURA COWLEY: Yes, I think it’s critical that they understand that the United States needs to help lead the international community to take action on climate change.

And right now, we’re seeing people across the country really demanding President Obama take — step up and enact strong regulations to regulate carbon right here in the United States. And doing that would send a major signal all across the globe that we are serious about climate change, that we are ready to take action. And it would help ease the path forward, so that all of those other countries would join us.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, we are going to leave it there.

Maura Cowley, we thank you very much.

Robert Stavins, thank you very much.

ROBERT STAVINS: Thank you.