Wirth: real momentum going to Paris climate talks, but big questions beyond
by Allen Best
SNOWMASS VILLAGE, Colo. – When the Aspen Renewable Energy Day began 11 years ago, it lasted a day and tended to the dour. It was a reflection of its times. Scientists were increasingly confident that greenhouse gas emissions posed a major risk, but little was happening in response.
This year, now rebranded as the American Renewable Energy Day, the conference ran six days and was rife with optimism as the world’s nations plan for climate change negotiations in Paris during December.
Among the most optimistic of the several dozen speakers was Tim Wirth, a former U.S. senator for Colorado, who often has been given credit for engineering the Congressional hearing in 1988 that put global warming on front pages.
“It’s very exciting. For the first time, we have real momentum,” he said.
Instead of fumbling for agreement that evaded negotiators at Copenhagen in 2009, he said the Paris talks will focus on more technical issues, such as how do you measure emissions. The United States has a high level of expertise in such accounting systems. Also needed are technical assistance packages.
“There are a lot of very technical issues that will be worked out between September and December.”
What happens after Paris?
“We have to start thinking about that,” said Wirth who, from 1998 to 2013, headed the United Nations Foundation, an organization started with a financial commitment from Ted Turner. He remains as vice chair of the foundation and the Better World Fund.
“We have pretty good idea of what will happen in Paris,” he said. “The negotiations have mostly been done. What do we do next? I see two very, very significant issues.”
Wirth outlined two challenges. One is how to figure out ways way of financing the changes in energy infrastructure.
“Should there be some kind of a carbon tax?” he asked. “We have been working with some of the very conservative Republican intellectuals on the issue of climate change. They say, ‘We would much rather have a pricing mechanism than the stupefying hands of the EPA.’”
The second major issue he foresees is how to deal with ocean acidification. As big a problem as climate change itself is, the increased ocean acidification is more immediately dangerous. “We have to begin to develop a whole new set of rules and regulations and treaties related to treatment of the oceans, and that’s the second outcome from Paris.”
Wirth sketched a history of the climate change negotiations since the first burst of optimism about action at the forum held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. That was followed by the Kyoto negotiations in 1997 – and then trailed for the next decade of what Wirth characterized as the “negotiation doldrums.”
“Perhaps the lowest point in the doldrums was Copenhagen,” he said. “Copenhagen ended up in what I would say was something of a shambles.”
With the top-down approach of international agreement failing, many believed a more flexible bottoms-up approach was needed with action by cities, states, and provinces.
Then, a very significant meeting occurred last summer between President Barack Obama and Xi Jinping, the president of the People’s Republic of China. The stage for that meeting had been set by five years of work by White House aide John Podesta to build trust, define common interests, and expedite scientific and other exchanges between the two countries, the world’s top two emitters of greenhouse gases. An agreement, announced last November, commits both China and the United States to timelines for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
“For the first time, the Chinese put very significant pledges on the table,” Wirth said. “This sent a very, very clear political, economic and environmental signal around the world. ‘If these big countries can get together, can others?’”
Other agreements soon followed. One was between the United States and Brazil. After Podesta’s visit to South Korea, that country pledged to triple its obligations.
“That was a major step for the tigers of Asia, to see what Korea was doing, what China was doing,” Wirth said.
Then, several months ago, the pope issued his encyclical. Wirth had been involved in an advisory capacity with that.
“It has a huge impact across the world. It’s going to 400,000 congregations, reaching very, very broadly to Catholic communities around the world. And he is backing that up by coming to Washington at the end of September,” reported Wirth. The document, he added, has “some very, very powerful language.”
The day before, former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd spoke about climate change, which he called the “greatest single moral challenge of our age,” and also the struggle to adopt and retain meaningful policies to begin limiting emissions.
He comes from the single largest coal-producing area in Australia, and Australia, he added, is the single largest coal-producing country. “My state is like West Virginia,” he said.
Rudd led the campaign for Australia to adopt a carbon tax – which was rescinded last year. He said he prefers to talk about a price on carbon as opposed to a tax.
Opponents of transitioning from carbon-based energy to renewables use the “politics of fear,” Rudd said. “Fear is a potent human emotion, and opponents of climate change action are highly skilled at exposing this psychology of fear in my country and around the world.”
In response, he said, activists need to talk about the high cost of inaction. He urged citizen activism to push governments “when they get weak in the knees.”