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Former U.S. Science Envoy: The Tone Of Climate Talks Is Now 'Quite Grim'


Now we'd like to hear about that major U.N. convention on climate change. Ambassadors and scientists from around the world have been meeting in Poland for this. It's being called the most important gathering on climate change since the Paris Agreement was signed almost three years ago. Now, the purpose of this conference is for countries to take stock of how well they're doing since that agreement was signed. Daniel Kammen is a former science envoy for the U.S. State Department, and he has attended many such gatherings, called COP, or Conference of the Parties. And he's with us now. Professor Kammen, thank you so much for talking with us.

DANIEL KAMMEN: Oh, thanks for having me on.

MARTIN: What is your sense of how this conference is going so far?

KAMMEN: Well, not good. Unfortunately, because the U.S. backed out, that's left a number of holes. Essentially, the Paris conference was such a success because countries have been ramping up clean energy and becoming less expensive. But the U.S. and China, the two big holdouts, took major leadership positions in 2014, with President Obama and President Xi committing to very strong clean-energy strategies. And, of course, President Trump has now stepped out of that. And that's left a big financing void of at least 20 billion a year against the committed or pledged totals. And we are seeing that only very few countries are actually on target to deliver on what they promised in Paris.

MARTIN: You know, I was going to ask you about that. So, really, there are two issues there because there's been a lot of reporting in recent weeks, including from the United States, from federal agencies in the U.S., that says that, despite these agreements, countries on the whole are still falling short of what is actually needed to mitigate the very dangerous effects of climate change. So the question here is - if the targets were ambitious enough to begin with and if nations have kept up with the targets that were set, what's your take on it?

KAMMEN: Right. Well, the targets that were set in Paris were definitely ambitious enough. They set a goal of not having the global temperature rise more than 2 degrees Celsius. And there's been this more - most recent report this fall that called for our target to become 1.5 degrees Celsius. But what's happened, instead, is that we've seen that emissions have risen for 2017 and 2018 after several years of emissions being flat or going down very slightly. And what has been left in the void of the U.S. stepping out of this process is that a number of industry groups that would've probably been onboard and making progress have really taken this as a chance to back off.

And so we're left with a very small set, actually, today. Morocco and The Gambia are the two countries that have kept up with their pledges. All of the European Union are in a holding pattern. The United States is in the group of countries that - whose emissions are going the wrong direction. And so lack of U.S. leadership has really hurt a process that needs to be thought of as a long-term change in the economy. As I like to say, it's much more of a marathon than a sprint, but that means you need to keep running each mile.

MARTIN: You mentioned emissions in the U.S. The president tweeted - the U.S. president tweeted this weekend, saying, quote, "very sad day and night in Paris. Maybe" - well, he's speaking, of course, about the demonstrations there, but - "maybe it's time to end the ridiculous and extremely expensive Paris agreement and return money back to the people in the form of lower taxes. The U.S. was way ahead of the curve on that and the only major country where emissions went down last year," unquote. Is that true?

KAMMEN: No. Unfortunately, he's just factually inaccurate on multiple counts. What we've found is that investing in cleaner-energy economy has actually been good for business. Solar and wind have become some of the cheapest forms of energy, and they produce far more jobs than fossil fuels. And, in fact, U.S. emissions didn't go down.

What's really sad to see is that the U.S. was in a business leadership position after Paris, where U.S. solar and wind companies, energy storage companies, energy efficiency companies were finding really valuable overseas markets because of this overall push to a cleaner economy. And President Trump, by stepping away from that, has taken the impetus away from many companies that could've got into this game, ironically, leaving more and more business for those players who are still in, mainly, the European Union and China.

MARTIN: So, finally, I know that you aren't there. You generally would go to this, but there are scheduling conflicts, you weren't able to. But you are in communication with people who are there. Do you have a sense of what - of the tone at the conference? Is there any sense of optimism? Is there any sense of, you know, the opposite? Is there any general feeling that you can determine about how we are doing on this?

KAMMEN: Well, ironically, I'm not there because the Camp Fire in California closed universities here. And so we have a climate-related reason not to be at the climate conference. The tone of the conference is quite grim, and it's for several reasons. One is that the recent report, such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's report, saying we really need to reduce the 2-degree goal that was set in Paris to have our warming of less than 1.5 degrees Celsius, making the job tougher - that would be possible because of the impressive performance gains we're seeing from solar power, from wind power and from some projects trying to preserve forests around the planet. But, with the U.S. stepping away, leaving at least a $20-billion-a-year gap in the funding needed to partner with poorer countries and the factually incorrect statements President Trump has been making about climate change - we have very clear agreement that humans are causing the climate change.

We've seen that in international reports. We've seen that in the U.S. National Climate Assessment. And we see that investing in clean energy actually is a very significant job producer. So this is the right time to really take heed of this climate report. But U.S. federal action is not only lacking but the U.S. has, of course, left the Paris Accord, entirely.

MARTIN: That's Daniel Kammen, former science envoy for the U.S. State Department. He's now professor at the University of California, Berkeley. Professor Kammen, thanks so much for talking with us.

KAMMEN: Thanks for having me on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.