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Why U.S. and China agreed on climate change action – Part 2

November 12, 2014 at 6:40 PM EDT
The U.S. and China reached a historic agreement to drastically curb carbon emissions after months of secret talks. Will either side be able to deliver on the pledge? Michael Oppenheimer of Princeton University speaks with Gwen Ifill about the pressures that led to the landmark plan and which other countries may be influenced to address climate change.

GWEN IFILL: We look more closely now at President Obama’s China meetings in two parts.

First, secret talks began months ago that led to that historic agreement between the two countries on cutting greenhouse gases. But, today, there are still plenty of questions about how it will play out here, in China and globally and whether either side will be able to deliver on its pledges.

Michael Oppenheimer is one of the many authors of the U.N. reports on climate change and a professor of geosciences and international affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University.

Welcome back to the “NewsHour.” 

MICHAEL OPPENHEIMER, Professor of Geosciences and International Affairs, Princeton University:  Thanks for having me.

GWEN IFILL: How big a deal is this deal?

MICHAEL OPPENHEIMER: This huge, as far as I’m concerned. And there are basically three reasons.

One, the science. The science tells us that to have a chance of avoiding the climate danger zone, we have got to get the world’s emissions turned around — that is, going down, instead of going up — some time in the 2020 to 2030 time span. The Chinese benchmark here of 2030 is consistent with that objective.

The second reason is that if you get China and the U.S. in the room, you have about 45 percent of global greenhouse, global warming emissions. If you add in the E.U., which is already on the downward direction in terms of emissions, you have got about 60 percent of the emissions. Think about the leadership factor involved in that.

Other countries will have a harder time avoiding dealing with climate change with the three 800-pound gorillas together. And the third reason is if China in particular is going to do this, and also the U.S., they’re going to have to go big into the renewable energy markets, where they have already staked out a position. That is going to help expand the markets, bring down the price of renewable energy, make it easier for everybody else to do this.

GWEN IFILL: How did China come around on this? Was it domestic pressure, was it international pressure?

MICHAEL OPPENHEIMER: With China, it is primarily domestic pressure. It’s a realization, number one, they have a terrible air pollution problem, which has become a political issue. They have to do something about that.

At the same time, they have got exposure to the climate change problem. And they’re worried about their energy security issues. So they have been looking to diversify their energy sources. And, as part of that, that means getting off the fossil fuels, which have been so dominant in the Chinese economy, for instance, coal.

GWEN IFILL: So these two presidents shaking hands, it was kind of essential in that one cannot do it without the other.

MICHAEL OPPENHEIMER: They really need each other if they are going to deal with climate change.

And I think it’s very interesting that they have decided that among the panoply of issues that they could reach agreement on, this is one where they have enough of a common interest and enough of an intention that they are serious about moving forward.

GWEN IFILL: Well, there certainly are a lot of issues on the table. And this is one where something happened.

But how hard is it for either country to meets these targets they have set for themselves, especially — let’s start with China. How hard is it for China to meet these, for instance, peak emission targets?

MICHAEL OPPENHEIMER: For China, it’s ambitious. There’s no doubt about it. But China has shown an ability to move quickly on energy.

Over the last 10 or 15 years, they have taken over the global production of photovoltaic cell solar energy and they have taken over virtually the global production of wind turbines. And in that way, they have helped other countries, particularly Germany, drive down their own emissions because they have been able to sell these products cheaply. So they can make a decision, and then they can implement it.

So I have no doubt that if this remains a political priority, China will be able to meet this goal.

GWEN IFILL: Well, talking about political priorities, let’s come back here to the United States, where already we have heard Republican Senator Mitch McConnell saying today this is not going to work. China is getting the deal. We’re going to get — we’re going to get caught on the short end of that stick. Can the political will fall short here?

MICHAEL OPPENHEIMER: I think that that’s getting it backwards. Namely, for China, this is going to be tougher than it is for the U.S.

For the U.S., what it means is staying the course on the regulations and the laws that are already in place and then stretching those laws a little further to implement some new regulations. So we’re already on the downward glide path. This means staying focused. And we can do it with technologies and measures that are already known and available.

GWEN IFILL: But what if the political winds shift the other way, which it looks like many people want them to, away from staying the course?

MICHAEL OPPENHEIMER: It could happen. One could envision the election of a president that isn’t as friendly to doing something about this issue as Obama is.

GWEN IFILL: Or a Congress, as just happened.

MICHAEL OPPENHEIMER: Well, it already happened.

But you have to realize that once we set a national priority to move emissions down, the public is in favor of it. Every survey indicates that the public is in favor of strong action. They’re waiting for leadership. And on top of that now, we have got China and the U.S. having mutually agreed to do this. It won’t be easy, no matter who the president is, to back off a deal that they have made with China, when there is a whole constellation of issues that we are reaching agreement on with China.

GWEN IFILL: And a whole constellation of countries watching this action. Which ones would you be watching most closely?

MICHAEL OPPENHEIMER: I would watch India.

They are the next big developing country that hasn’t really taken much of an interest in this issue. They’re critical because their emissions are expected to grow quite a bit in the future. If this agreement is actually implemented, it will go a long way to dragging India in, or maybe pulling them in with a little help, into doing something about climate change.

And then beyond that, we have looked at countries like Brazil, Indonesia, et cetera.

GWEN IFILL: Michael Oppenheimer of Princeton, thank you very much.

MICHAEL OPPENHEIMER: Thanks for having me here.