Pew's Elliot Diringer discusses expectations for upcoming UNFCCC talks in Bali

As the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee takes up the Lieberman-Warner climate bill next week, and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change resumes international climate discussions in Bali later this month, questions remain about the Bush administration's role in climate talks as it heads into its final year. During today's OnPoint, Elliot Diringer, director of International Strategies at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, previews the upcoming Bali discussions. He also discusses what impact Lieberman-Warner discussions will have on the international community.


Monica Trauzzi: Welcome to OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Joining me today is Elliot Diringer, director of International Strategies at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. Elliot, thanks for coming on the show.

Elliot Diringer: Glad to be with you.

Monica Trauzzi: Elliot, two major climate events happening in December. To start off, the Senate EPW Committee will be taking up the Lieberman-Warner bill, discussing that on December 5. Following that, we're expecting the U.N. Framework Convention to take up talks in Bali in the second and third week of December. So, let's start with Bali first. Take your crystal ball out and tell me what you think the Bush administration's mindset is heading into this meeting.

Elliot Diringer: Well, both of these events really do cap a pretty amazing year in terms of climate events. We've seen a steady buildup of momentum and concern around this issue and that's been reflected in the attitude of the Bush registration. They've shown a greater openness to discussing this issue and a more robust, diplomatic approach. I think we saw that with the president coming into the G8 with plans for a major economies meeting that was held in September. So coming into Bali, the administration is saying it supports the proposal from other countries to develop a roadmap toward an agreement in 2009. But I think one has to look behind all that and see what type of agreement does the administration have in mind, how does that square with what other countries are thinking, and is it really achievable?

Monica Trauzzi: All right, and we'll get into all of that in just a moment. I want to talk first about the delegation that they're planning on sending over. They recently announced that we're expecting to CEQ head Jim Connaughton, Paula Dobriansky from the State Department will also be there. What is the makeup of the delegation mean to you as far as how involved the U.S. wants to be in these discussions?

Elliot Diringer: Well, typically the delegation would be headed by the undersecretary of state, Paula Dobriansky. So she'll be going as is ordinarily the case. The fact that Jim Connaughton of the White House is going, as well as senior people from Treasury and USTR, does reflect this higher level of engagement that the administration is showing. But at the same time, I think we have to be clear that we're not really seeing any fundamental shift as yet in terms of the policies that these officials are carrying to these negotiations. They've begun to lay out a vision of a post-2012 agreement, but it's really consistent with where they've been from the start with an emphasis on voluntary approaches.

Monica Trauzzi: There remain to be some disagreements about the goals of the meeting, what we should try to achieve in Bali. What's essential? What absolutely needs to happen in Bali?

Elliot Diringer: Well, one thing that's very important to understand is that governments are not coming to Bali to actually negotiate a post-2012 agreement; rather the key issue in Bali is how to launch a process to negotiate a post-2012 agreement. And in thinking about that, the starting point really should be the end point. What sort of post-2012 agreement do we really think is needed? And based on that vision, what kind of process do you need to get you there?

Monica Trauzzi: But if you can't come to an agreement on that, how do you create a process?

Elliot Diringer: Well, that does make it challenging. But I think that you can't, obviously, have a very detailed vision of what that ultimate agreement is going to be, but you do need to have some common understanding of the nature of that agreement. And we're not quite there yet, which is why I think that it will be difficult, actually, to agree on a process in Bali that is likely to deliver an effective post-2012 agreement by 2009, which is the deadline that many governments would like to set.

Monica Trauzzi: So, ultimately, what do you see coming out of Bali?

Elliot Diringer: I think we'll have an agreement on a process because all of the governments are going to want to come home from Bali saying that they've agreed on a process that's going to move us forward. The political demand for action is stronger than ever, so governments need to have some kind of positive decision coming out of Bali. But I think it will be a relatively weak process. I think what's important is that it not be a process that rules out a negotiation of commitments. Ideally, I think what we need is a process that is explicitly about a negotiation of binding international commitments for all the major economies, including the United States, including the major emerging economies. I don't think we'll see that. I'd be surprised, actually, if the decision even uses the word commitments. So I think at best what we might see is a very loosely defined process that hopefully opens the door, if not explicitly so, at least implicitly, to a discussion of commitments.

Monica Trauzzi: What would be a bad outcome in Bali?

Elliot Diringer: I think a bad outcome would be one that would make it difficult for a future U.S. administration to engage in the process. For instance, if the process launched in Bali is only about developing countries and only about incentives for developing countries, so basically takes off the table the question of potential commitments for developing countries, then I think that's one that would be difficult for the U.S. to constructively engage in.

Monica Trauzzi: 2009, you mentioned 2009 and there will be a new president and the White House. Is there too much pressure already on this president, we don't even know who it's going to be, but on this new administration? A lot of emphasis is being placed on what they're going to be doing in their first six months. Is there too much pressure?

Elliot Diringer: Well, I think if people come out of Bali actually expecting a real deal to be cut in 2009, expectations will be too high. Because realistically, any incoming administration is going to need time first to get senior people in place, second to develop a policy process and arrive at a negotiating position. And that takes time. That takes a matter of months even under the best of circumstances. So it will be difficult for a new administration to waltz into a negotiating process in 2009 and actually conclude a negotiation. I think more likely the U.S. can start engaging in the process at that time and maybe we're looking at 2010 for a deal, even that though may be ambitious.

Monica Trauzzi: Ban Ki-moon wants 2009 though, he's said that.

Elliot Diringer: Well, you know actually I think that at one point Ban Ki-moon was saying 2009 or 2010, but there's been a lot of push-back from governments who want to keep the pressure on by putting that deadline on 2009. And that's an effective way to keep the pressure on, but there's a risk. If you raise expectations too high and they can't be met then you create disappointment and we can't afford real setbacks in this process. We have to keep moving it forward.

Monica Trauzzi: The fourth IPCC assessment was recently released. What kind of guide does that lay out for the Bali talks?

Elliot Diringer: Well, I think the latest assessment from the IPCC really is yet another wake-up call louder than ever from the scientists about the need for action. It doesn't tell you a lot about just how to structure a future agreement, so really it's more of an impetus to the negotiators to get rolling on negotiations and get to an agreement.

Monica Trauzzi: The Bush administration disagreed with a couple of the sections in this latest assessment. So what does that say to you about going into these Bali talks? What does that say to you about how they're going to handle things?

Elliot Diringer: You know, I think at this point, frankly, the administration is pretty well on board with the science and is no longer in denial about the problem. I think they may still be in denial about the solution. So they'll be coming into Bali with a vision of a post-2012 agreement that, frankly, won't do the job. It doesn't match the level of task that's before us. So I think they feel a strong pressure, both internationally and domestically, to appear more responsive to the issue and I think that's why we're seeing a more active, diplomatic effort. But the type of approach they're advocating, frankly, just won't cut it.

Monica Trauzzi: And, of course, intertwined in all of this is news coming out of Australia that they plan to sign onto Kyoto and this would make the U.S. the only developed country that's outside of the Kyoto process. So what does this do for the U.S.'s ability to convince other countries to sign onto aspirational goals as they're hoping for?

Elliot Diringer: Well, I think the U.S. finds itself increasingly isolated on this point. And, as you say, with Australia becoming a party to Kyoto that leaves the U.S. as the only major industrialized country outside of Kyoto. You know, if we're talking about a long-term goal, then it's probably appropriate that it be aspirational. But if we're talking about the actions that countries are going to take in the near and medium-term, we need to see those reflected in commitments. When the administration put forward its vision at the major economies meeting in September you didn't see any governments really endorsing the view that we should take voluntary approaches at the international level. There was a pretty uniform view that we need commitments. The developing countries are quite clear that we need commitments, real, hard commitments from the developed countries. So they don't favor an approach that lets the developed countries off the hook. By the same token, we shouldn't be letting the developing countries off the hook by not forcing the issue of commitments. The U.S. needs to step forward, say that it's prepared to negotiate commitments, and then force the conversation about commitments for developing countries as well, instead of letting them off the hook and letting ourselves up the hook by talking about an approach that doesn't involve binding international commitments.

Monica Trauzzi: All right. And Senator Barbara Boxer is attempting to make a statement to the international community by putting the Lieberman-Warner bill in front of the EPW Committee right before Bali. How do you think this is going to play out in Bali? Is it really going to have much of an impact?

Elliot Diringer: I think, at this stage, there really is an acute awareness among other governments that they need to differentiate between the policies of this administration and the broader dynamic on this issue within the United States. They've seen what's happened at the state level with more and more states enacting climate policies. They've been watching very closely the developments on Capitol Hill and I think they take heart in that because they understand that even if they can't get very far with this administration, the longer-term dynamic is much more encouraging in the United States. And likely a new administration will be much better prepared to negotiate toward commitments.

Monica Trauzzi: Is the Lieberman-Warner bill the kind of bill that can make it to the floor and eventually pass? Does it go far enough?

Elliot Diringer: I think it certainly does go far enough. There may be some who think it goes too far and I think that that's ...

Monica Trauzzi: And some think that it doesn't go far enough.

Elliot Diringer: That's right and we'll see when it gets to the floor.

Monica Trauzzi: All right. It will be interesting to watch. And you're heading off to Bali next week, so ...

Elliot Diringer: That's right.

Monica Trauzzi: ... have a good trip.

Elliot Diringer: Thanks.

Monica Trauzzi: Thanks the coming on the show.

Elliot Diringer: Glad to be here.

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

[End of Audio]



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