White House enviro chief Connaughton discusses president's new climate plan

As the Senate debates a comprehensive energy package, the question of whether or not Congress will be successful in passing an overall emissions reduction mandate still remains. And if they do, will it be something the president will sign? During today’s OnPoint, White House Council on Environmental Quality Chairman Jim Connaughton discusses President Bush's recently announced global climate strategy. Connaughton explains why he believes binding targets set false expectations. He discusses the importance of having China sign on to some form of emissions reduction legislation and talks about the upcoming post-Kyoto talks that are set to take place in Bali, Indonesia, later this year.


Monica Trauzzi: Welcome to OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Joining me today is White House Council on Environmental Quality Chairman Jim Connaughton. Chairman thanks for coming on the show.

Jim Connaughton: My pleasure.

Monica Trauzzi: Just days before the G8 summit the president announced a plan for a long-term global goal on climate change. He's invited the world's 15 largest polluters for a summit in the U.S. Why didn't he decide to work with the G8 instead, like Germany's Angela Merkel wanted to? She wanted to set some specific targets. Why not do that?

Jim Connaughton: Well, actually we have been working with the G8 in a process that was launched quite dramatically by Tony Blair back at the Gleneagles Summit in 2005. Since then there's been an ongoing conversation within the G8, as well as a forum that we set up called the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate, which was set up with China, India, South Korea, Japan, and Australia. These processes are converging in terms of the way we want to think about a way forward. And the G8 was a good next step to seeing if we could reach common agreement among the G8 on a path forward. So these are evolutionary processes. The G8 is one forum, but ultimately it's the U.N., is the ultimate forum we're working toward. So we work with the G8, we work in other settings, and we bring all of that to the U.N.

Monica Trauzzi: The long-term goals in the president's plan are not binding, why not be more forceful? Why not commit to set targets?

Jim Connaughton: Actually, we set out a series of components. One is we'd like to see if we can reach global consensus on a vision of a long-term outcome. And then two, we would like to see each of the major emitting nations establish a very clear portfolio of strategies in the near to midterm. We're talking the next 10 to 20 years. And then we'll be working on an industry sector basis to see where we can make real progress in each of the individual sectors necessary for a solution. Now in terms of the long-term vision, all of the leaders have agreed that that has to be aspirational in that you're talking about 40 or 50 years from now. We tend not to set binding regulations that are that far out in time. But it gives us a clear direction, internally, within our political processes, but also it gives a clear signal to the world that we are committed to very substantial reductions in greenhouse gases. And then we use that to calibrate our near-term actions. But Europe's long-term goal, that they currently have adopted, does not have binding regulatory force. Japan's proposal doesn't suggest that either, so I think that's been a bit of a false expectation. Nobody has suggested that there'd be some regulatory outcome internationally established and enforced.

Monica Trauzzi: You mentioned the near-term goals, what steps will the U.S. take to limit emissions in the next 10 to 20 years?

Jim Connaughton: Well, in the next 10 to 20 years we are currently working to achieve the president's goal of improving the greenhouse gas intensity of our economy by 18 percent by 2012. That's how much you emit per unit of GDP. I'm pleased to say that we are well on track to meeting that goal. In fact, last year, stunningly, America saw a 3.3 percent increase in our GDP, but we actually had a net reduction of CO2 of about 1.3 percent. So this was the first time that America has seen a real reduction in CO2 in the wake of substantial economic growth. The only two other times we've seen that in recent history have been in relation to a recession. And certainly nobody is suggesting that we should make progress on climate change by putting our economy into a recession. So this is a very positive indicator that we can become leaner, more efficient, start investing in new technologies, while still growing our economy.

Monica Trauzzi: Is this proposal just another holdup? Or critics of the plan, like Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, have said that it's a public relations stunt. No changes would go into effect until the president virtually leaves office. They say it's just another way to sort of skirt the issue. Is this an attempt to holdup action on definitive climate measures?

Jim Connaughton: The opposite is actually the case. The climate debate, at the international level, has been in a stalemate. You have the major emerging economies who care about the health and welfare of their citizens and economic growth and lifting people out of poverty. You have the major developed economies who are focused on trying to get technology investments and have complementary, but in some instances different strategies for how to address CO2 in that context. And then a process that is just very unwieldy. And so there's been a stalemate. What this is intended to do is actually accelerate the conversation and do it on a more practical level. It's a lot easier to initially start the conversation with 10 to 15 countries than it is to start the conversation with 189. It's also important that it's the 10 to 15 largest energy users. We are the countries that actually have the obligation to address the economic needs of our citizens as well as the environmental footprint of those choices, including carbon. So this is the group that ultimately has to find some common ground. Eighteen months is lightning speed to see if we can reach agreement, even on the essential components of our framework, let alone all the other pieces that would flow from that that will be carried out by the U.N. The other thing about the critics, I tend to find much of the criticism is largely uninformed to date. So I am actually hopeful that as we further explain what we're trying to achieve that even those critics will have a better understanding of it. I would note that Senator Boxer, with whom we had had extensive discussions before this, and she had encouraged the president to pursue an approach like this, she very rapidly came out and said, "Yes, Mr. President, you're doing what I suggested." Congressman Boucher, who's one of the key leaders on the House side, he very quickly caught on to how this is a very important complement to the legislative process he's trying to lead. And those are two prominent Democrats. So I think people just need to catch up with the information and you'll see even growing support for this.

Monica Trauzzi: And E&E has actually reported that you're in talks with Congressman Boucher about specific climate legislation. Is this piece of legislation that you're discussing with him something that the Democratic majority would sign on to? Does it include a cap and trade approach?

Jim Connaughton: There is a broad portfolio of legislation moving through the Congress right now. And it spans what the president has called for, in terms of dramatic increases in the fuel efficiency of vehicles through new, mandatory reformed CAFE standards, corporate average fuel economy standards. It includes a mandatory alternative fuel standard that is a program that uses a cap and trade mechanism to achieve its goals. And that, by the way, the current legislation pending on the Hill is not as aggressive as what the president's proposed, neither the Republican version or the Democratic version of that is as aggressive as the president proposed. So that's an interesting situation we find ourselves in. As well as efficiency, new efficiency objectives, which go to the core of industrial greenhouse gas emissions. And then there's a debate on how we deal with power sector emissions, and that varies. You know, there's a wide variety of proposals, Democratic and Republican. So we'll have to see how that unfolds.

Monica Trauzzi: Do you believe that the administration, the president, will sign a piece of legislation if it comes to his desk, if the Democrats are able to pass something through, some kind of climate legislation?

Jim Connaughton: There's no question the president will sign legislation because he already has done it once.

Monica Trauzzi: Cap and trade?

Jim Connaughton: The Energy Policy Act of 2005 was a broad piece of bipartisan legislation that contained almost all of the components the president had been calling for for four years. This round the president has called for legislation that will allow us to replace our use of gasoline by alternative fuels and through vehicle fuel efficiency by 20 percent in the next 10 years. That will be a dramatic cut in the projected greenhouse gas emissions associated with transportation. As well as the president has called for and supported a number of the technology and efficiency components that are currently being debated in the Hill. I think there's no question that when those come through, if they meet the test the president's layout, he'll be happy to sign it. Now, if they don't, we have raised some very particular concerns with some of the legislation, he will also veto it. So we have to let the process unfold. Let's see what the shape of the legislation is, but ...

Monica Trauzzi: A piece of legislation that mandates the reduction of emissions.

Jim Connaughton: The vehicle fuel economy mandates will provide a direct up to 5 percent reduction in the CO2 from vehicles. The alternative fuels mandate would require the replacement of gasoline with 35 billion gallons of alternative fuels. Direct mandates, that's a cap and trade tool and it will produce real CO2 reductions. So those are two that he has supported. We have withheld our support for other proposals because we haven't seen other proposals that meet the president's goals of growing the economy, of using technology to achieve our objectives, and doing so in a way that actually engages China and India constructively and doesn't simply move our emissions overseas. So we haven't seen a proposal, some of the proposals violate those principles and so we won't support them.

Monica Trauzzi: We've seen a change in tune of sorts from the president recently relating to climate change. Beyond this latest proposal, he also mentioned climate for the first time in this year's State of the Union address. Would you characterize this as a major shift in his position on climate change?

Jim Connaughton: No. I would characterize it as a continuing advancement of the president's strategy on climate change. He issued a very strong statement on climate change in June of 2001, reiterated it in July of 2001, and then launched our 10-year policy in June of 2002. I think the greater weight of the shift has been more of the public is actually paying attention to what it was the president laid down. We have then consistently, since 2002, brought out major new initiatives. We did hydrogen in 2003 to worldwide acclaim. We launched the Methane to Markets Partnership globally to worldwide acclaim. This is a program with 18 countries to cut methane emissions, which are 20 times more powerful than CO2. And that's moving forward and everybody likes it. But you don't hear too much about it because nobody's complaining. The president then, last year, launched the Advanced Energy Initiative in the State of the Union, whose objective it was to advance our energy security, reduce our air pollution, and cut our greenhouse gases. And then just this year, in the State of the Union, he amplified it yet again and more people listened. So I think you're seeing the continuation of a growing and increasingly international set of strategies by the U.S. and more people understanding that it's occurring.

Monica Trauzzi: When you were last on our show in 2005 you said "Many different people have many different perspectives on the science of climate change. We know enough from the science that the issue is a serious one and we know enough from the science and it's an issue that needs to be dealt with seriously and sensibly." In the two years since that interview we've seen several major studies concerning climate change. The IPCC report came out recently. How would you characterize your stance on the science now taking all this new information into account?

Jim Connaughton: Well, we've been very pleased that this 5 to 6 review that occurs in the U.N. process has benefited substantially from the major science investments that the president committed the United States to. We do about $2 billion of science a year and the literature from that is finding its way into these summaries at the international level. Our understanding of the science has deepened significantly. Our understanding is stronger, in particular on just the temperature issues. Are we seeing a long-term temperature trend? And that's much stronger, our sense of that, that that is occurring is much stronger. But we've also advanced our understanding of the linkage between human activities and this phenomenon. And that's stronger. So there's a stronger sense of that. There's still a lot of work under way on how you translate that into projected impacts, some of which we are observing, such as melting ice off of land masses. That's occurring much more significantly in a faster rate than we had observed before. Others are projections. If a certain scenario happens, you know, what would we see in Chicago? What would we see in Florida? There's still a lot of work underway on how you can get to that finer grain of analysis. A lot of that is supported by the new focus the president brought, by the advice of the National Academy of Sciences to getting into that more granular measurement. And that's going to be very important in the next five or 10 years.

Monica Trauzzi: China has rejected mandatory caps on greenhouse gas emissions. They don't want to be drawn into a commitment to reduce emissions. A major point the president has made is that if the U.S. signs on to something China should sign onto something too. But at what point does the U.S. decide that waiting for China is actually going to be more detrimental?

Jim Connaughton: Well, actually, I think circumstances have overtaken that as a polar choice. China gets it. They are focused first and foremost on energy security, but that will produce significant improvements in the greenhouse gas profile. Secondly, they're focused on just the debilitating air pollution that is causing real human health impacts and premature deaths in China today. That is also going to help drive greenhouse gas reductions. And you just saw China, for the first time, in a very internationally public way, lay out their 45 programs of action, between now and 2010, specifically related to climate change. That's a huge shift for China and we should welcome that. They're being very thoughtful. They get it. What we want to do in the next 18 months is see, with China in particular, but the other major emerging economies too, if we can break this problem down into its component parts. What can we aggressively achieve in power generation? What can we aggressively achieve and reasonably expect, in China and India for example, in transportation? And work with them to design forward strategies that move in parallel with us. Now, we'll be ahead, but the issue is can we all move together rather than one waiting for the other? And actually I'm very confident that will now occur. It's a question of how much of an agenda we can create, not whether we will have one.

Monica Trauzzi: What's your take on Senator Biden's push for a sense of the Senate resolution on climate change? He'd like to push President Bush to work toward some binding agreements.

Jim Connaughton: I don't think you need to push. The president is already way ahead of that set of discussions. So to the extent the Senate or the House wants to reflect on that, that's their prerogative. We have seen some very positive expressions across the aisle and support for what we're doing. We've been very pleased by the way that the UN leadership, Ban Ki-Moon, the head of the UN, the secretary-general of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, Evo Dabor, with whom I've had several conversations, the head of the science process, Dr. Pachauri, who runs the IPCC. All of them have taken the time to see what the president's proposed. They see the promise in what he's proposed and they've come out strongly in favor of it. We're all working together on this and we're all moving forward, I think within a rate of reasonable expectation. We'll take a look at these resolutions, if they try to usurp the constitutional prerogatives of the president we'll comment on them like we have in the past. But I really think that kind of sort of rhetorical skirmishing, we're past that. We're really trying to roll up our sleeves and find some constructive solutions.

Monica Trauzzi: Some people are concerned that the Bush administration is trying to undermine the U.N.'s role in this entire process by proposing meetings of its own and trying this latest proposal. Are you trying to undermine the U.N.?

Jim Connaughton: You know, the climate issue in particular is plagued by contrarianism. And it's remarkable to me, because when you think of the thousands of government officials and the tens of thousands of private sector and NGO people involved and this massive process we've set up in the U.N., in the Asia-Pacific partnership, the G8, in our bilateral partnerships on hydrogen, on fusion, on carbon capture and storage, the fact that anyone can engage in a contrarianist discussion just amazes me. There is so much moving on this issue and is especially the positive linkage to energy security now is able to bring people to the equation from a broad spectrum of political perspectives. That let's focus on this great foundation we've laid, let's focus on the constructive pathways and let's focus on the technology solutions that are going to solve this problem. We're chewing up too much time with some of this contrarianism. We need to get on with action.

Monica Trauzzi: At a recent gathering in Sweden delegates from countries that will be participating in the Bali talks at the end of this year said they'd like the meeting to produce a post Kyoto roadmap and they're insisting that the meeting produce results. Does the U.S. have the same goals for that meeting?

Jim Connaughton: Well, the G8 leaders plus 5 have made it very clear that we are orienting our activities to bring a very positive product into the U.N. process. I think Bali will continue that process, but we're aiming toward conclusion in 2009 at the meetings hosted by Denmark. In fact, I've been in conversation with the senior officials in Denmark looking toward that. So this will take some time. I mean this is not easy. We have five years of experience really with implementing Kyoto. And for those of us who were not in the Kyoto Protocol, we have five years of experience with our own domestic strategies. There's a lot that we see in that that works really well, but there are also key aspects of that just don't work well at all, create huge unintended consequences. We have to take a look at that and be thoughtful about it. In 1997, when this was first launched, nobody had really figured out, at the domestic level, how they were going to try to accomplish this. We've got 10 years of learning. Let's take advantage of it. The president said, in 2002, "We're going to ask, we're going to learn, we're going to act again." I think that's the way this is going to unfold for the next several decades.

Monica Trauzzi: All right. We're going to end it right there on that note. I appreciate your coming on the show.

Jim Connaughton: Thank you so much.

Monica Trauzzi: This is OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Thanks for watching.

[End of Audio]



Latest Selected Headlines

More headlinesMore headlines

More headlinesMore headlines

More headlinesMore headlines

More headlinesMore headlines