President Obama will go to Copenhagen

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

MARCO WERMAN: So what's going on with that big climate change summit next month in Copenhagen anyway? If you're a little confused by now, you're not alone. The meeting was supposed to produce a new global treaty to address the causes and impacts of climate change, but maneuvering by many of the major players in the past few weeks has made it hard to know what to expect from the conference. One thing we do know as of today is that President Obama will be among the world leaders in attendance. The White House announced this morning that Mr. Obama will visit Copenhagen on his way to Norway to accept the Nobel Peace Prize. Here to help sort out what this all means is The World's environment editor, Peter Thomson. What will the President be able to accomplish, Peter, in a quick stopover at the summit?

PETER THOMSON: Well, his appearance seems primarily an effort to restore basically world confidence in the US's commitment to strong action on climate, which has certainly been lagging in recent weeks. I mean, he came into office ten months ago, promising swift action on climate and energy policy after years of stagnation really, going back to the Clinton administration. But just about everything on his legislative agenda has gotten bottled up in Congress behind the healthcare debate, so that leaves the US still as the only major industrial country without a strong national commitment to emissions reductions. And he really needs to demonstrate some leadership to restore confidence that the US is serious here.

WERMAN: And given the stalemate in Congress, what can President Obama bring to the table?

THOMSON: Well, basically, what he's decided to do it seems is to work off the numbers that have passed the House and are pending in the Senate. And essentially, that's somewhere between a 17 and 20 percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions from the year 2005 to the year 2020 and perhaps 80 percent by 2050. Now that may sound significant and it actually is, but it's still a good deal less than what other countries have already agreed to under the existing Kyoto protocol, which is to reach similar targets, but based on a 1990 base level.

WERMAN: It's all about greenhouse gas emissions and creating a treaty to limit them. That's the goal of this conference. So I guess no one's expecting that now. What is the new goalpost?

THOMSON: Well, it was actually the Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen, who proposed scaling back the hopes for Copenhagen to which Obama agreed last week. And he still wants to make sure that the Senate produces at least a basic framework for an agreement, and that would include at least specific pledges for emissions reductions by all countries, developed and developing, but under the principle established under the Kyoto Treaty, which is that of common but differentiated responsibilities by developed and developing countries, which basically means the developed countries have a responsibility to do more, because they created the problem and they are richer. And they do want to set a deadline for next year, maybe at a Mexico City conference next winter, to finalize all the details.

WERMAN: Obviously a lot of expectations dialed back for the Copenhagen summit. Peter, you're going to be there in December. What are your gauges for success?

THOMSON: I guess for me as a journalist and a citizen, it really comes down to how close the agreement at this conference comes to meeting the challenge that scientists are telling us that we're now facing, which essentially is that the problem is getting worse faster than we ever expected. There's new repots coming out every few months that summarize the latest science and they keep telling us that. There's a new one out just this week called "The Copenhagen Diagnosis." Essentially it's telling us that sea levels are rising faster than we thought, ice packs are melting faster than we thought, and that we really risk permanent, irreversible damage if we don't act radically and act soon.

WERMAN: Peter Thomson, The World's environment editor, thanks very much.

THOMSON: Thank you, Marco.