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How a global effort could deliver solutions on climate change

In Poland, a U.N. climate conference concluded with consensus on several ways to achieve the Paris Agreement's goal of limiting global temperature increases. But with a lack of U.S. support, is the progress enough? Nat Keohane, senior vice president of the Environmental Defense Fund, joins William Brangham to discuss international transparency, renewable energy and "urgency" around climate change.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    On Saturday, negotiators from over 200 nations agreed to a set of rules that would help implement the 2015 Paris climate accord.

    It is a very different political moment, of course, than when countries met in Paris.

    But as William Brangham reports, even though the United States, one of the world's top carbon polluters, has said that it will pull out of the Paris accord, some believe that important progress was made this weekend.

  • William Brangham:

    With the Paris accord, the world's nations agreed to try to slow their carbon emissions to keep global warming under two degrees Celsius, which is about 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit.

    Above that, scientists say, the damage will be even more intense: food shortages, massive droughts, and hugely destructive sea level rise. The conference that just ended in Katowice, Poland, helped set some ground rules for how that Paris accord will be implemented.

    Diplomats agreed on a common set of standards to measure their own emissions, as well as their own goals. It asks countries to further limit carbon emissions in advance of the next meeting in two years, and it calls on wealthier nations, those that created this problem, to address how they will help the poorer nations that are disproportionately hurt by climate change.

    Nathaniel Keohane is the senior vice president of the Environmental Defense Fund, and he attended the talks in Poland over the last few weeks.

    Nat, thank you very much for being here.

    I wonder if you could just give us a sense of, what is your sense of the greatest accomplishment that came out of Poland?

  • Nathaniel Keohane:

    So, you mentioned it.

    It's that rule book that requires countries to transparently report their emissions, to report how they're doing against the commitments they have made. And the reason that's so important is because we know we need to ratchet up ambition, take much deeper cuts in climate pollution, in the greenhouse gas emissions that are warming the planet.

    And the way to do that is for countries to build confidence and trust that other countries are doing what they said. That's why that transparency rule book that they agreed in Poland is going to be so important.

    And it strikes a balance between a common standard for everyone, a level playing field for all countries, so that China and India are facing the same basic requirements as the U.S., as well as flexibility to recognize that not every country has the same capacity, and to build in some flexibility for countries that need it.

  • William Brangham:

    There was some concern going into this, I know, that with the U.S. pulling out of the Paris accord, and basically the second largest emitter of carbon in the world saying, we're going go home and we're not interested, that that would have a knock-on effect and that other countries might follow suit.

    Did that actually happen?

  • Nathaniel Keohane:

    So, it was interesting, because you saw really to U.S. delegations show up in Poland.

    There were — the one delegation was the professional negotiators, who really were looking out for U.S. interests in the negotiating rooms throughout the two weeks. And they're the ones who scored such a big victory for the planet and for the U.S. with those strong transparency rules we just discussed.

    Then there was the White House that showed up and seemed to be mainly interested in pulling stunts. They had a side event on fossil fuels. They allied themselves with Saudi Arabia to make sure that the conference didn't welcome a scientific report on warming.

    But, luckily, the stunts and the sort of sideshows of the White House didn't actually interfere with the substance of the talks. And the talks, I think, yielded much more, including for the U.S., than many of us had thought might be possible.

  • William Brangham:

    I appreciate that sense of optimism that you have.

    But, as you well know, global carbon emissions reached a record high last year. We have seen over the past year many of the long predicted impacts of climate change, with droughts and wildfires and rapidly intensifying storms, wreaking havoc on the U.S., not to mention what's happening elsewhere in the world.

    There are still many in the environmental community, in the scientific community who argue we are just not doing nearly enough.

  • Nathaniel Keohane:

    Well, we aren't doing enough. That's absolutely right.

    And if we doubted the evidence of our own eyes and the hurricanes and the wildfires and extreme weather, we got a stark reminder when the Internet Governmental Panel on Climate Change, a scientific body with world-renowned experts, found earlier this fall that the planet is warming even faster than we realized, that events are coming sooner than we realized.

    Climate change used to be something that was going to be far off in the future. Now we're seeing it in our own times. We're going to see it in the lives of our children. And so we do need to really ramp up that urgency.

    But I guess I see what happened in Poland as an important step towards operation realizing the Paris agreement, which is one of the tools we're going to need to use if we're going to tackle the challenge and meet that sense of urgency.

  • William Brangham:

    There is always this gap between when people recognize the severity of the problem, and then act accordingly to do this.

    There are a lot of pressures that push against meaningful action on climate change. Some of them are economic. Some of them are social. Some of them are political.

    What gives you a sense of hope that we really will tackle this problem?

  • Nathaniel Keohane:

    Well, I think, if we're going to tackle this problem well, we need two things. One is that sense of urgency that we just were talking about that I think is increasing with the evidence of our eyes and the reports and so on.

    But the other is a sense that there are solutions out there, that we have what it takes, if we put our minds to it, if we put the resources to it, to address this problem.

    And, there, I think we're really seeing some bright spots. I will just give you a couple of examples. If you look at renewable energy, like wind and solar, the costs of that energy are plummeting. In some places in the United States, wind and solar are cheaper than existing coal as an means of generating electricity, so cheaper to run than current coal plants.

    You have a big electric utility in the Mountain West, Xcel Energy, that's agreed to cut its emissions 80 percent by 2030 and 100 percent by 2050.

    You look internationally, China, even though its emissions are still creeping up, is likely to peak its emissions and start on a downward path in the middle of the next decade, which is five years ahead of its own commitment.

    So there are tailwinds, the economic drivers on renewable power, on renewable energy, clean technology, that are blowing in our direction. And I think that's what gives me some optimism that we have the solutions we need, if we can match them to that sense of urgency we should all have.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Nat Keohane of the Environmental Defense Fund, thank you very much.

  • Nathaniel Keohane:

    Thanks for having me.

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