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Why Are Global Efforts To Prevent Climate Change Stalling?


Why has very little progress been made on the international level to reduce the effects of global climate change? We speak to UC San Diego Professor David Victor about his new book "Global Warming Gridlock," which explores why the international discussions about fighting global warming have yielded very little progress over the last 20 years. We also speak to Dr. Victor about what the United States can do on a federal level to reduce its carbon footprint.

Dr. David Victor will hold a free public discussion about whether the world has made progress in stopping global warming this Monday night, April 25 at 5:30 p.m. at the Ruben H. Fleet Science Center.

Why has very little progress been made on the international level to reduce the effects of global climate change? We speak to UC San Diego Professor David Victor about his new book "Global Warming Gridlock," which explores why the international discussions about fighting global warming have yielded very little progress over the last 20 years. We also speak to Dr. Victor about what the United States can do on a federal level to reduce its carbon footprint.


Dr. David Victor, author of the new book "Global Warming Gridlock." Dr. Victor is a professor in the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies at the University of California-San Diego, and director of the school's new laboratory on International Law and Regulation.

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

ST. JOHN: You're listening to These Days on KPBS. Good morning, I'm Alyson St. John in for Maureen Cavanaugh. There are international treaties to combat global warming, and governments at all levels are setting targets for how many carbon dioxide levels need to be reduced. But we still seem to be woefully slow in the response to climate change. Our guest is doctor David Victor, professor of the school of international relations and pacific studies at UCSD, he's also director of the school's new laboratory on international law and regulation. He as a new book out, it's about whether the world has made progress in stopping global warming of it's called global warming grid lock, creating more effective strategies for protecting the planet. So doctor Victor, good morning.

VICTOR: Good morning.

ST. JOHN: Now, the economist reviewed your book and described it as showing that the world's current approach to the problem of climate change is in a mostly ineffective mess. Would you say that's accurate.

VICTOR: Yeah, I think that's accurate upon. The world has spent 21 years on global talks around climate change, and so far we don't have a lot to show for that. We have a global treaty that was negotiated now almost two decades ago, and it gathers information and allows people to call meetings but doesn't do much more than that. We have a Kyoto treaty that was negotiated almost right after that. But almost none of the biggest emitters in the planet are actually part of the Kyoto treaty, and it expires next year. And the talks that have been going on to try and find a replacement for the Kyoto treaty have just ground to a halt. So I think we're in a serious problem right now, which is there's no real vision for how to fix this problem and meanwhile the emissions that cause climate change continue to build. And the book is really an effort to try and layout a much more practical way of getting the world's countries together and tackling this problem.

ST. JOHN: We'd like to hear from you, our listener, if you have questions or comments for doctor Victor. Of what's your view of the way we're tackling climate change? Do you think we're threatening our current economy by acting now to protect the future? We'd like to hear your comments. 1-888-895-5727. So doctor Victor, why is that? Why is it that the international community has made so little progress in reducing global warming over the last 20 years? 21 years, you were saying.

VICTOR: I think there are a number of reasons of upon one of the reasons, is this is a really difficult problem to address. Sometimes it's one of the most difficult things for countries to get serious about because it requires them to spend serious money right now to implement new technologies for benefits that are only gonna be far in the future. And they have to do that in a way that coordinates with lots of other countries that have different interests. So that's hard and that's unavoidable. We've also not made much progress because the talks in this area have been in some sense designed to fail. They have involved, because they're part of the UN system, they have involved every country on the planet. So even tiny little countries that have almost no emissions and don't really contribute to the problem sit alongside the big countries, United States, China, India, European Unions, that are really the big players. And part of the solution is to move away from these UN talks to smaller groups where countries can really work together and develop practical agreements. And I guess there's a third reason, which is that most of the treaties in this area have focused on things that governments can't actually control. So the end all and be all in this area is for countries to set targets and time tables to regulate their emissions. But most of the emissions are a byproduct for the economy, and governments tonight actually have direct control over those emissions. So it's been very hard for countries that are serious about living up to their international commitments to make commitments of this type. That's one of the reasons why the United States and China aren't big players in the Kyoto treaty is they can't make credible promises to other conference about exactly the level of emissions inside their countries.

ST. JOHN: But surely, I mean, our weather is actually affected by what China is doing, for example, surely we have to take a global approach to this issue, don't we?

VICTOR: I think eventually we need to take a global approach, and eventually every country needs to be involved. But eventually is a long way down the road. And right now because we're started with I global approach, come is admirable, it's nice 206 the idea that every country can sit next to every other country and working on a global problem in a global way. But because we've taken that approach, are the negotiations have been extremely complex, and they've been extremely vulnerable to small countries holding them hostage, for example the Copenhagen conference a couple years ago that was the big event that was supposed to find a successor to the Kyoto treaty, one of the reasons that didn't end on time, and it didn't end with a clear legal agreement on what to do next is because a handful of tiny countries led by Sudan took the floor and lectured the world for hours on respect for international law. And something's kind of seriously awry when Sudan is telling every other country on the planet what to do about international law when Sudan's own emissions are so small that they're negligible.

ST. JOHN: 1-888-895-5727 is the number to call if you have a question or a comment for doctor Victor. And Joe is on the line from university city with a depend question. Go ahead Joe.

NEW SPEAKER: Yeah, I wanted to get the doctor's take on using markets as a way of solving the problem, and then possibly following up with a question depending on his answer. And the reason I bring that up is because I do agree with his basic premise that the government has been ineffective in dealing with this problem, and it seems like markets -- this is just my personal point of view, that markets seem to be more effective, if they're structured properly, in getting the behavior that we want.

VICTOR: Yeah, I think that's an important question, Joe. And this is an area where the United States has been most delinquent. It's hard for the U.S. or any other major country to get serious about controlling emissions unless there's a signal for all of us, individually, and companies to start to control our emissions, and the most important signal would be a clear price on our emissions, what economists sometimes call a carbon taxer a carbon price. And there are a lot of ways you can get that. The Congress over the last couple years has considered legislation that would cap emissions and set up a trading system inside the United States that would in effect create a price on carb on. And that ended because politically in Washington everyone was focused on healthcare and not enough on climate change. So there's absolutely a role for markets here. And it's hard to make deep cuts in emissions without a market signal. But I think it's also important that woe recognize what markets can't do. And so just putting a price on emissions won't by itself for example create a strong enough incentive for companies to go out and invest in new technologies, because a lot of the benefits of those investments flow to everybody inside the country and not just the individual company. And so I think that's been, in my view, too much attention to market solutions here, and not enough to all the other solutions like investing in research and development that need to be part of a broader strategy.

ST. JOHN: So Joe, do you have a follow up in your question about market controls? Is Joe not longer with us? Okay. So that Joe, you're there?

NEW SPEAKER: Yeah, yeah.

ST. JOHN: Did you have a follow up?

NEW SPEAKER: Yes, I do, can you hear he?

ST JOHN: Yes, we can hear you.

NEW SPEAKER: Okay. So I don't know if you remember maybe 20 or so years ago, you know, acid rain being caused by sulfur dioxide emissions, but the solution to that was actually a market and we don't hear anymore about acid rain. I mean, we set up a market that traded sulfur dioxide credits, the major producers of those upper power plants in the western region and north America, and they can't down their sulfur emissions by 90 percent. We don't hear any acid rain anymore. So far I think, actually, if the incentives are there, will lead to the outcome that we want.

VICTOR: Yeah, so, and in fact the system that the United States has considered for controlling its emissions, a cap and trade system, is model said exactly on that 1990 sulfur trading program that you're talking about, Joe. But I think there are two really big differences. The first one is that the sulfur trading program that was created in the 1990 clean air act, that concerned basically about 300 sources of pollution. So we knew where all of the pollution was coming from, and we knew how to regulate those sources, we knew how to measure them and so on. Whereas the pollution that causes climate change comes from almost every industrial activity in the country, and in fact almost every industrial activity around the world. So the complexity of setting up and monitoring and forcing a market system in the case of climate change is amount higher, and the other big difference is in the case of sulfur, we queue with some confidence that we had the technologies needed to control that problem at the time. Make deep cuts in emissions, and that's why acid rain has stopped in the United States , largely stopped in the United States. Where's we don't really know that in the case of climate change. So the role for innovation, and big research and development is much higher for climate changes than it has been in the earlier environmental problems that were easier to address with these kinds of market strategies.

ST. JOHN: Well, that was a great question, Joe. Thanks very much. You helped get under the skin of that cap and trade question. Our number is 1-888-895-5727. And Katrina's on the line from San Diego. Go ahead, Katrina.

NEW SPEAKER: Yes, hi. I was basically listening to your phone call, I mean the radio, and bottom line, I think there needs to be a better buy in with regard to individuals and politically. It seems to be that global warming is an issue, but then you have scientists or people stating that it's not an issue. So I think there needs to be political man dates regarding our nation alone factually stating that it is an issue, global warming is an issue, we do have problems, and from that point on then making political mandates on companies and corporations that as of this date, this year, all auto industries need to make only hybrid cars, all corporations need to have their emissions at a specific level or they have to be shut do you happen. Obviously there's no jobs in those corporations and the businesses are hogging and hoarding money and doing horrible thing, and we need politically to make some man dates and shut things down and basically freshen up our nation as a whole. And then do the small subgroups with international -- internationally to make mandates in the other nations as well.

ST. JOHN: Well, doctor Victor, do you think there still is political question in people's minds? Even the department of defense is now saying that climate change is a threat to national security. But do we need to convince the politicians still.

VICTOR: Oh, I think absolutely. In the scientific community, the consensus around at least the basic fact of climate change has never been stronger. But the public is more concerned. And I think they're concerned not just because they hear dissent about the science, but they're worried about the cost. And they're worried that this is gonna result in shutting down activities before we have replacements. They're worried about the extra costs on an economy that's already fragile, and I think those concerns are legitimate. They under score why this problem is not gonna get fixed quickly. Im' very optimistic about the long term within technologies, but I think in the short term, the public buy-in isn't there for rapid and aggressive solutions.

ST. JOHN: Well, as you say, these are legitimate concerns. Do you have any suggestions in your book of ways to get around that, or is it more just a matter of waking up to the fact that we need to be prepared to make more sacrifices?

VICTOR: Well, are the scientific community needs to continue doing what it's doing to get the message out about the science. A big part of my book is about what happens if climate change occurs rapidly and catastrophically. There's a growing area of science upon around there. And it's really scary. Because we've spent 20 years not doing very much, the concentrations of these gases have built up to ever higher levels in the atmosphere. And there's a whole branch of the science that looks at what happens if warming happens extremely rapidly, what happens to nature, and I think part of our job in getting the message out is helping people understand that we are maybe on the edge of some really, really ugly changes in climate. And a big chunk of the book is about that.

ST. JOHN: Well, what about climate clubs? I guess that's one of the things you're advocating for in your book.

VICTOR: Yeah, the idea of climate club system to work in small groups of kitchens that are focused around practical things the governments can do. And here I think there's actually some good news. For example the United States and China, neither country is part of the Kyoto treaty but both of them are working together on a whole range of investments in new technologies. Indonesia, which is the world's second largest reforesting nation, is now, unlike four years ago or five years ago, very controlled on its attempts to control deforestation, and it's working with Norway, and a few other countries on practical things to control deforestation, and I think what's gonna happen in diplomacy in these areas, she's mall groups issue clubs I call them, these small grandpa groups of countries focusing on practical things are going to make a dent in the problem. It's going to take a long time. But it's much more realistic than everybody avenue gonna get together all 180 countries on the planet and hold hands at a giant UN meeting.

ST. JOHN: Well, I wanted to ask you, what do you think with California's governor, Jerry Brown, are making a new initiative to up the ante on carbon reduction goals by 33 percent by 2020. I understand you're not that enthusiastic of the effectiveness of setting goals like this? Why not?

VICTOR: What California is doing is very important because it signals credibility, but California also needs to remember that the state is only one percent of global emissions, so it can get out ahead of the world and demonstrate ways to control emissions and create markets to the first caller, to Joe's question, at the beginning of this show, and we're doing all of that. But we also need to be careful that we don't get so far out in front that the public stops supporting it. And my concern with the latest announcement to California is we are now ramping up our requirements for renewable energy. That's the new announcement 33 percent by 2020, our requirement for renewable energy to such a high level that the extra cost is gonna become quite noticeable. And I'm really worried about a public backlash. Because frankly if we lose California's support on climate change, then we don't have much else in the arrest of the country.

ST. JOHN: Interesting. Well, you're talking about getting ahead of the game, but in fact the goal for 2010, which was I believe 20 percent, hasn't been met by our own utility here in San Diego, SDG&E, I believe has only come up with about 13 percent. But the PUC is not enforcing that goal with penalties. It's just giving the company another three years so much are you suggesting that perhaps the PUC's on the right track by not enforcing those state goals?

VICTOR: Yeah, I'm not so worried about the particular goals here. And I in fact, if you force companies down to the exact letter of the law, then you force them to do lots of strange things that can be very expensive.

RIH2: Like investment in technologies, and so I think the PUC is doing the right thing. And the signals are very clear, if you're a utility operator in California, you need to shift away from high carbon fuels to lower carbon fuels and renewable energy, and that's exactly the right signal to send.

ST. JOHN: Interesting. 1-888-895-5727 is the number. And Jose is calling to Chula Vista. Go ahead, Jose.

NEW SPEAKER: Yes, I just wanted to respond to something Dr. Victor said about the smaller countries kind of holding up these U, N meetings, and I wanted to say that I've been part of the Copenhagen, and I went to Cancun and we're part of a nongovernmental organization here in San Diego that does work with nongovernmental organizations throughout the United States and the world. And I think what doctor Victor did mention was that these countries are already feeling the effect of climate. They're seeing a lot of health incident, they're seeing a lot of heat rise, and in some instances they're seeing a lot of sea rise. So these countries are not in it just because they want to. This is something that they need to be part of because their lively hoods in some instances are being done away with. And the way that this whole process is done, just to try to push down these countries throats, these projects on foration, and other things like that, well, countries like the United States , and China and Japan and others aren't going to really, you know, put it to the test in regards to really lowering their carbon footprint.

ST. JOHN: Any reaction, doctor Victor.

VICTOR: Yeah, Jose's question is exactly right. The big countries, wig emitters need to do a lot more. Particularly the United States needs to do a lot more. And I could just add one thing, I think his question points to a very important shift that's happening in the diplomacy in this area, which is the small especially poorer countries are worrying a lot less about how they're gonna control their emissions because they know that they're not a big part of the problem, and they're worrying a lot more about how they're gonna adapt to changes in climate. And the you said and other big emitters need to play a larger role in helping these countries adapt. We don't really know how to do that very well though. Of and it's unfortunately the poorest and smallest countries issue especially countries with fragile ecosystems that are gonna be much vulnerable to changes in climate.

ST. JOHN: So why are you more pessimistic about what could happen in the short term, but more optimistic in the long-term in the few seconds that we have left?

VICTOR: Just very briefly, almost all major environmental problems get solved by new technology. That's how we started to clean up the ozone layers, and that's how we fixed acid rain, as somebody mentioned earlier in the call. And there are technologies coming along in the laboratory that could really make a big difference here. Of the reason I'm pessimistic about the short term is the big technological change like this take 50 to 70 years, and during the next 50 to 70 years there's gonna be a lot of emissions and that means a lot of warming a lot more and adaptations that Jose and other people are talking about.

ST. JOHN: Interesting, well, doctor Victor, thank you so much. And we should mention that you are gonna be holding a free public discussion about this on Monday night, April 25th, at 530 at the Ruben H. Fleet science center. Very interesting. Thanks so much for with being with us.

VICTOR: Excellent. Thank you so much.

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