We Like It Hot

Monday, the U.N.'s Framework Conference on Climate Change began two weeks of negotiations in Bonn, Germany, to plan the agenda for the major climate summit in Durban, South Africa, at the end of the year. The talks will set the stage for whatever global agreement will replace the Kyoto Protocol, which expires next year. The conference also comes just a week after the International Energy Agency (IEA) reported a record level of carbon emissions in 2010. Following the lead of the U.S., which never signed on to Kyoto, several countries that once supported the Kyoto provisions have been backing away from renewing the protocol.

To understand the implications of the conference's outcome, the Prospect spoke to Janet Redman, co-director of the Sustainable Energy and Economy Network at the D.C.-based Institute for Policy Studies, who is in Bonn for the negotiations.

What are the expected goals of the conference in Bonn? We're now one week into the talks -- how have they played out thus far?

The major battle that's being waged here is, will we see the Kyoto Protocol move forward? Or, will we see it being undermined and gutted and instead see a whole different process, where it would be more of a pledge-and-review process? That's what the U.S. is really pushing. That means that every country says what it thinks it can do based on its own national circumstances. Basically, "I think I can reduce my emissions by this much." You hope that it totals what the science is calling for. And you review them at a later date.

The problem with pledge-and-review is that the pledges that have been put on the table are far short of what is needed. We're looking at a five-degree warmer world at the end of the century, which would basically mean it would be unrecognizable to people living on Earth today. If you look at what's on the table, in this nonbinding regime that the U.S. is trying to put forward, we're really heading for climate catastrophe.

There have been a number of these global summits over the years. Can these kinds of discussions produce results that make a significant difference?

I don't think it's that multilateral processes don't work. They work as well as the governments who attend them want. [At] the United Nations, the U.S. has the least to lose right now. It's not feeling the impacts of climate change as intensely as other parts of the world; we're wealthier so we can deal with those impacts we do feel. So we're at a super advantage in the U.N. negotiations. For those countries that are poorest, I think there has to be a multilateral process like this, where they can band together and look after their collective interests.

Since the tsunami in Japan, we've seen a lot of talk about nuclear and other energy alternatives. How has the disaster and that debate affected the current discussions?

We haven't heard a lot of talk about the tsunami. In fact, we haven't even heard a lot of talk about the natural disasters that are actually climate-related. At the negotiation--it's actually quite shocking--you don't hear a lot about specific kinds of energy or technology. We talk a lot about technology in the abstract, but you rarely hear anyone talking about reducing fossil-fuel consumption, for example, although we talk about reducing emissions all the time. So there's an interesting disconnect in the negotiation process between the causes of climate change, in terms of the activity we do on a daily basis--the way we drive, the way we extract fossil fuels--and the kinds of solutions we're talking about, on this macro level.

In general, has the Obama administration been more engaged in these sorts of processes than, say, the Bush administration was?

Obama had made a real promise to come back to the multilateral process and be deeply engaged. Unfortunately, we're seeing many of the exact same policies from the U.S., just in a nicer tone of voice. The Obama administration is not denying climate [change]--thank goodness for that--but that's not exactly leadership. If Obama was really interested in being a leader in the U.N. climate talks, it would mean putting real emission cuts on the table.

How is Obama's approach affecting the talks overall?

The U.S. is leading the charge ... for people to drop out of a regime that has any kind of a compliance mechanism and has them on the hook for delivering real emissions reductions and reducing greenhouse-gas pollution.

A worst-case scenario would be a complete collapse of the Kyoto Protocol and a transfer of all of the conversation around emission-reduction commitments toward a pledge-and-review system that has no basis in scientific targets and has no mechanism for making sure that we reach a level that will keep us safe.

I'm still hopeful at this early stage. I think once we have the agenda set up in a way that allows countries to have the conversation they were meant to have, we'll see a lot of positive forward movement.

This Q&A has been edited for clarity and length.