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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Bilateral Strength in Copenhagen

Air Date: Week of

Timothy Wirth the President of the United Nations Foundation (Photo: the UN Foundation)

The UN Climate Change conference in Copenhagen is just around the corner. President Obama and Chinese Premier Wen now say they plan to attend. Timothy Wirth, president of the United Nations Foundation, talks with host Steve Curwood about what to expect in the upcoming weeks, including the importance of forging a strong relationship between China and the U.S. in order to get the job done at Copenhagen.


YOUNG: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts - this is Living on Earth. I’m Jeff Young.

CURWOOD: And I’m Steve Curwood. The long awaited U.N. Climate Change conference in Copenhagen is nearly upon us, with more than 65 presidents and prime ministers scheduled to attend.

YOUNG: And President Obama will be among them—for a day at least. The president will speak on day three at Copenhagen—no major decision’s expected till the end of the two-week summit. Many question whether much can happen at Copenhagen to curb emissions from the world’s biggest carbon polluters—the U.S. and China.

CURWOOD: U.N. Foundation President, Tim Wirth, a former U.S. Senator and Under-Secretary of State for Global Affairs, joins us now. Mr. Wirth, welcome to Living on Earth.

WIRTH: Nice to be with you again, thank you very much.

CURWOOD: Now, in a recent statement that you made on U.S.-China relations you said that the urgency of the green opportunity should be the lynchpin of the relationship between these two global powers. What would it take to forge this type of relationship?

WIRTH: Let’s look at the reality of the situation, Steve. That we’re the biggest developed world, they’re the biggest developing country; between the two of us we have about 50 percent of the world’s carbon emissions. So, if we can figure out together a joint program for moving toward a greener and ultimately low-carbon economy, then we have an opportunity together to really salvage the world.
So, how well we work on such issues as developing natural gas, working on various carbon sequestration issues, really getting a renewable energy economy, and of course increasing energy efficiency. These are some of the ingredients, each of which we have a big stake in, and they’ve got a lot to offer, we’ve got a lot to offer and together it seems to me we can hook up and make a huge difference.

CURWOOD: What about natural gas – what kind of capability does the U.S. have, and what about China’s?

WIRTH: Well, the U.S. has huge reserves of natural gas, and the Chinese have also very large reserves. And natural gas is less than 50 percent of the carbon content of coal. It’s a lot cheaper in every way too, when you’re finding natural gas and producing it, you don’t end up mountain topping, you don’t end up with massive amounts of coal sludge, you don’t have all the heavy metals that result from coal production.
So it makes a great deal of sense from an environmental and public health point of view to move to natural gas. And we’re the country that has the capability to develop those reserves, so this is another area where the U.S. and China ought to be working together very closely.

CURWOOD: What kind of numbers do you think the U.S. government is going to put on the table in Copenhagen? We’re the last major player here to come up with numbers that we’re willing to work with.

Timothy Wirth the President of the United Nations Foundation (Photo: the UN Foundation)

WIRTH: I think that the U.S. can put on the table a number of what we would call building blocks. They can put numbers on related to efficiency, related to renewables, related to deforestation, related to substitution of natural gas for coal, and related to automobile efficiency.
You add all those up and they get you to about a 20 percent reduction. And if you look at the legislative strategies on both the House and the Senate side, each of them are close to a 20 percent reduction. So, I guess I’d be surprised if whatever announcement the U.S. makes isn’t in the neighborhood of a 20 percent reduction.

CURWOOD: How much money should the U.S. offer developing countries to help them meet their emission reduction goals?

WIRTH: One of the most important parts of the agreement is going to be the funding that the developed world gives to the developing world to help them adapt to climate change. I mean we’re in this terrible situation of those that were least responsible for climate change are those who are going to suffer the most, particularly the poorest countries. So, I think if the developed world puts together a pool initially of about three to five billion dollars to help the developing countries begin to adapt to the climate change that’s already built into the system, that - that would be a good number, that would be a good start, and would be an acceptable part of a final agreement in Copenhagen.

CURWOOD: If the Congress of the United States doesn’t move forward in the next year, how likely do you think it is that president Obama will use regulatory authority under the EPA to begin to cutting back on the use of coal?

WIRTH: Well, the president currently has very significant authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate carbon, and the Supreme Court has said that it can do so. So, the president has a lot of authority to do this and that is ultimately the most important weapon in his arsenal.
Of course, there are many in the industry that want to preempt that authority and I suspect there’ll be efforts on Capitol Hill to take that authority away from the public, away from the president so that the government can’t regulate carbon. If that were the case, then I think we’d lose an enormously valuable tool.

CURWOOD: Now, you’ve been at this question of climate change since…well, I know in the United States’ Senate you were at those hearings that NASA scientist, James Hansen came to, back – what is that? – 1988, here it is some 21 years later and we’re still talking about putting a limit on carbon.
How optimistic are you that it’s going to happen?

WIRTH: I think we’re getting to the point where the public’s going to start saying to the carbon industry, ‘You can no longer pollute the atmosphere the way you’ve done it in the past’. And the 64-dollar question, of course, is are we going to do enough fast enough? And that’s why Copenhagen becomes so important, it’s directionally right. That’s why it’s so important we follow up, that’s why it’s so important the president sustain his authority to regulate carbon, and that’s why we all have to work together internationally, particularly the U.S. and China to move us toward a low-carbon economy, to avert the catastrophe that truly is just around the corner.

CURWOOD: Timothy Wirth is president of the United Nation’s Foundation and formally led the U.S. delegation for climate negotiations back in the time of Kyoto. Thank you so much, sir.

WIRTH: Thank you very much, Steve.



To learn more about the UN Foundation click here


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