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Countdown to Copenhagen: The U.S. Role in Climate Talks

As climate talks continue next week in Bonn, WRI President Jonathan Lash explains why the U.S. should actively take part in negotiations.

"We can't solve the problem without the rest of the world," Lash argues. "If we can have a commitment to reduced emissions that is believable, if we can have a mechanism for verification, and if we can have assistance to the poorest nations to help them adapt, we'll be on our way to a success at Copenhagen."

WRI's experts analyze the issues at stake in the critical negotiations leading up to the Conference of the Parties in Copenhagen in December, where a post-2012 climate agreement is expected to be concluded.

Learn more about our WRI's work at the COP-15 here, and watch the video interview of Jonathan Lash on YouTube.

Full interview transcript:

Q: Why should the United States tie itself to a global climate agreement, rather than take purely domestic action on climate change?

Jonathan Lash, WRI President: It is urgent for the U.S. to reduce domestic greenhouse gas emissions. There is clear public support for doing that, and the President has made it unequivocally clear that he is committed to reducing U.S. emissions. Firstly, because of national security. We need a new energy policy that makes the nation more secure; less dependent on imports of fossil fuel. Secondly, because it will equip us to compete in the markets of tomorrow - markets for low-carbon services and goods. And thirdly, because we face a climate crisis.

If the U.S. adopts legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it is clearly in our interest to ensure that the rest of the world acts as well. First of all, in order to be effective in reducing global emissions, we need action by all leading emitters - not just the U.S. but Europe and Japan and China and Australia and India and Brazil and Russia. We can't solve the problem without the rest of the world. Secondly, the more rapidly the whole global economy begins to shift to a low-carbon basis, the more likely we are to succeed in growing our own economy by manufacturing the goods and services, doing the innovation that the world will depend on. And thirdly, as long as all nations are reducing emissions, the playing field is level. We don’t have to worry that our industries will be somehow disadvantaged because they're taking steps to reduce emissions and other countries are not.

Q: There is a lot of mistrust of the U.S. among other nations taking part in the climate negotiations. How will America rebuild that trust?

Lash: I don't think the issue in the negotiations is one of trust. I think the issue in the negotiations is one of action. If the parties find the political will to propose realistic provisions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to effectively verify one another's actions, that can form the basis for trust.

Trust isn't a precondition for a successful outcome at Copenhagen. If it were, I don’t think we could achieve a successful outcome. But trust will be a product of a successful outcome in Copenhagen.

Q: So what would be a successful outcome in Copenhagen?

Lash: The only purpose of the negotiation is to stop global warming and to help countries adapt to the warming that is inevitably occurring. In order to do that, we have to reach an agreement to reduce emissions, especially among the countries that are the major sources: the United States, Europe, China, India, Brazil, Australia, Russia. We also need an agreement that assures each of the parties that they can verify that other parties are fulfilling whatever commitments they have made as part of the negotiations. That much - the agreement to reduce emissions and the agreement to verify fulfillment of those commitments - is going to change the world. The assurance that we are on a de-carbonization path will change patterns of investment and innovation and trade in ways that will reinforce the effects of the treaty, and, I believe, will accelerate the global response.

We also have to fulfill the commitment that we made explicitly and unequivocally in the 1992 Framework Convention on Climate Change, to help the poorest nations to adapt to the climate change that is inevitable. That must be part of the agreement. So, if we can have a commitment to reduced emissions that is believable, if we can have a mechanism for verification, and if we can have assistance to the poorest nations that they will receive in order to help them adapt, we’ll be on our way to a success at Copenhagen.

Q: Are these conditions to which the U.S. is likely to sign up in December?

Lash: President Obama has been clear since he took office that he wanted the United States to be not only party to, but a leader in the creation of, an international climate agreement. His representatives in the negotiations have continued to reiterate that position, saying we wanted an agreement that made specific commitments to reduce emissions and to help poor countries adapt. The verification provisions will be important to the United States. I think they will be included, and I think that the U.S. can ratify such an agreement.

Find more information here on U.S. climate actions leading up to the UNFCCC Conference of Parties (COP) 15 in Copenhagen.

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