Air Date: Week of June 27, 1997
Steve Curwood reports from the United Nations and the second world environmental summit. The conference ended with no agreement about specific goals and time tables to prevent global warming. Looking toward the final round of negotiations in December, Europeans are asking the United States to come up with some concrete figures.
CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
CLINTON: Mr. President, Mr. Secretary-General, ladies and gentlemen. Five years ago in Rio, the nations of the world joined together around a simple but revolutionary proposition: that today's progress must not come at tomorrow's expense.
CURWOOD: Like President Bush before that first Earth Summit, President Clinton had to be persuaded to come to the second one, this time in New York. And when Mr. Clinton did come, he came late Thursday, just before the close of the conference.
CLINTON: As Vice President Gore said Monday, sustainable development requires sustained commitment.
CURWOOD: If Mr. Clinton had come for the opening sessions of this assessment of the world's environment since 1992, he would have heard in speech after speech from dozens of other Prime Ministers and presidents that little progress has been made in reaching the goals set in Rio for environmental protection. The Prime Minister of Denmark is Paul Neurup Rasmussen.
RASMUSSEN: Let us be honest today. We have not lived up to those solemn commitments. We did not do what we were supposed to do.
CURWOOD: From fisheries to forest to water, the news was mostly bad. And there was one overriding concern.
BLAIR: Perhaps the most worrying problem is climate change.
CURWOOD: Since the Rio Earth Summit, an overwhelming scientific consensus has developed, which holds that unchecked climate change could disrupt food production, cause catastrophic droughts, floods, and promote the spread of diseases. It was Britain's fledgling Prime Minister Tony Blair who continued the theme started at the economic summit of the big industrialized nations in Denver the week before: that the US must make binding commitments to timetables and targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
BLAIR: The biggest responsibility falls on those countries with the biggest emissions. We in Europe have now put our cards on the table. It is time for the special pleading to stop and for others to follow suit.
CURWOOD: In a follow-up press conference to bolster the criticism, British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook took the American bashing one step further, and challenged the American public.
COOK: I think that the American public have yet to come to terms with the consequences of the consumption of energy that they have at present.
CURWOOD: The rest of the world is upset with America because of the huge amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases we are dumping into the atmosphere from vehicles, power plants, and industry. We use twice as much carbon per person as the British, 3 times as much as the French. And with only about 5% of the world's population, we emit almost a quarter of the world's CO2. The US State Department says that only the British and the Germans are expected to meet the voluntary targets for greenhouse gas reductions under the accord negotiated at Rio. But many nations have been making progress. In the meantime, US emissions have been getting worse, thanks in part to cheap energy and the booming economy. By 2010 the Europeans want greenhouse gas emissions from industrialized nations cut by 15% of 1990 levels. In its counter-proposals, the US has said it wants tradeable emissions credits, requirements for developing as well as developed nations, and a plan that spans decades as well as the short-term. But the US says it's still too early to talk numbers. I asked Undersecretary of State for Global Affairs Tim Wirth why.
(To Wirth) What's the obstacle? Why is the Clinton Administration at this point unwilling to commit to a firm timetable and goals for the binding agreement of climate change control?
WIRTH: Well, as we have stated over and over and over again, Steve, we're going to make that commitment. But we're not ready to do it yet. We've said for months that we're going to do it in late summer, early fall. This has to be done as part of the Kyoto negotiations, which occur in December, and that negotiation is not going on here in New York.
CURWOOD: Are the prospects good in Kyoto? Given the response from the Europeans, or many of the Europeans, and the stridency of some of the remarks, some public, not so public, one might get the impression that these talks are in danger of collapse. There may not be an agreement in Kyoto.
WIRTH: We always have, at any difficult negotiation, there's always a lot of brinksmanship that occurs, and always a lot of fear that occurs, and you probably, halfway through the Kyoto negotiations we're going to say to each other in the middle of the night we're never going to get there. And we probably at the end of the day, it gets done.
CURWOOD: But even as the President was preparing to speak, demonstrators called for firm targets.
PROTESTER: President Clinton...
CROWD: What will you do?
PROTESTER: One more time.
CROWD: What will you do?
CURWOOD: Privately, the Europeans say for the US to meet meaningful targets, taxes on carbon consumption will be unavoidable. But in his speech, while President Clinton conceded that the US has a poor record on greenhouse gases, he made no mention of any new taxes. Instead, he outlined a plan to begin an immediate response to the challenge of global warming by educating Congress and the American people.
CLINTON: I will convene a White House conference on climate change later this year, to lay the scientific facts before our people. To understand that we must act. And to lay the economic facts there so that they will understand the benefits and the costs.
CURWOOD: The President also promised to begin technological innovations right away.
CLINTON: We are working with our auto industry to produce cars by early in the next century that are 3 times as fuel efficient as today's vehicles. Now we will work with businesses and communities to use the sun's energy to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, by installing solar panels on 1 million more roofs around our nation by 2010.
CURWOOD: Environmental activists were disappointed by the president's remarks.
HARE: Well, it's a very complex negotiation. And by waiting until the very last minute, the US risks creating a rather major train wreck internationally.
CURWOOD: Bill Hare is an economic policy analyst for Greenpeace.
HARE: You don't have to be a rocket scientist to know that it will take more than 6 months to bring the American public around to realize that commitments have to be made in Kyoto. And I think the Administration has not actually taken the lead in going out and telling people what's actually at stake. And instead, the fossil fuel industry, the oil industry and so on have taken the lead in telling people that there's no problem, and that even if there is a problem it's too costly to solve. And I think the Administration is wrong not to have confronted that issue earlier, head-on. And I think the challenge that remains in the period to Kyoto is for the Administration to actually tell the American public what is at stake. The international scientific community says there'll be significant loss of human life from the health effects. There'll be major changes to mountain ecosystems. There'll be more droughts and floods. All these things will impact on lifestyles in the USA.
CURWOOD: Michael Oppenheimer is chief scientist for the Environmental Defense Fund. He supports the Administration's plants for emissions trading but wants concrete goals.
OPPENHEIMER: What they have done is put out a flexible framework, which might be a good approach, we think it is a good approach, to reducing emissions. But it's kind of a headless horseman. Without the head of the specific targets, the framework is rather meaningless. And in fact, at this point in terms of the negotiation dynamics, by not putting out the specific targets they're undermining any credibility that their flexible framework might otherwise have. They need both parts. The target, and the framework.
CURWOOD: President Clinton says he has a workable negotiating plan for Kyoto.
CLINTON: We will work with our people, and we will bring to the Kyoto conference a strong American commitment to realistic and binding limits that will significantly reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases.
CURWOOD: Michael Oppenheimer says it is essential that these negotiations prove fruitful. And that carbon emission reductions by the US begin promptly.
OPPENHEIMER: This is a problem that by and large, for at least a short period of time, remains in our hands. We have the opportunity today, and for the next few years, to grapple with it, and probably avoid very disruptive changes. That opportunity, though, is slipping away very fast.
CURWOOD: There are 2 more preparatory conferences in Bonn, Germany, before the final meeting of the climate change convention in Kyoto in December. Observers say that if these negotiations fail, it could be years before the world's nations make another attempt to try to stop global warming.
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