Ahead Of Climate Talks, U.S. Leadership In Question

The U.S. is second only to China in emitting gases that cause global warming. Above, the smoke stacks at American Electric Power's Mountaineer power plant in West Virginia.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST: Action on many major issues depends, right now, on Congress. That would be the Congress that longtime political analyst, Norman Ornstein, last summer, scorned as the, quote, "worst Congress ever." Its approval rating is 12 percent. It's politically divided and facing an election year.

For better or worse, Congress has not acted on promises to reduce the gases that cause global warming. Despite a presidential pledge to reduce emissions two years ago, the U.S. is spewing more carbon dioxide than ever into the atmosphere. That's the situation as a new round of United Nations talks are getting underway in Durbin, South Africa.

NPR's Richard Harris reports.

RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: Nations of the world have been negotiating over climate treaties for almost 20 years, and so far there's been no discernable benefit to the atmosphere. It seemed just possible, at a U.N. meeting two years ago in Copenhagen, that there was a glimmer of hope. Nations weren't going for a binding treaty, but some pledged to take serious action anyway.

President Obama stood before the tense meeting and promised that the United States would do its part.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Almost all the major economies have put forward legitimate targets, significant targets, ambitious targets, and I'm confident that America will fulfill the commitments that we have made, cutting our emissions in the range of 17 percent by 2020 and by more than 80 percent by 2050 in line with final legislation.

HARRIS: Ambitious targets, indeed, but listen again to the caveat at the end of his sentence.

OBAMA: ...in line with final legislation.

HARRIS: In other words, the promise to cut emissions was contingent on Congress passing an aggressive cap-and-trade bill. But that 2,000 page bill went into the trash instead of onto the president's desk. The great recession briefly achieved what Congress didn't - national emissions fell for a short time. But no longer, says Kevin Kennedy at the World Resources Institute.

KEVIN KENNEDY: Starting in 2010 it looks like we're starting to see an up-tick again, and you would expect to see emissions continuing to increase, in a business as usual case, out to 2020.

HARRIS: Kennedy says that the president's recently enacted fuel-efficiency standards for cars and light trucks will put a meaningful dent in our emissions. And rules about power plants, due out early next year, could also reduce carbon dioxide emissions. How much of course depends upon how stringent the rules are. States, especially California, have laws designed to lower their emissions in the coming decades.

KENNEDY: California represents an eighth of the U.S. economy, so that's a significant piece of the overall U.S. picture.

HARRIS: But even with all those state and federal actions taken together, the World Resources Institute figures that the nation can't achieve a 17 percent reduction in emissions by 2020. New federal laws would need to fill the gap, and Kennedy says prospects for that aren't good.

KENNEDY: Nowhere else in the world do you see a political debate about whether climate science is real, whether or not the climate is actually changing. That political climate makes it very difficult to move forward in a comprehensive way, and that is something that we need to address in this country.

HARRIS: Part of the problem is, even Congressmen who accept the science of climate change are concerned that if the United States dramatically slashes its emissions, that could harm economic competitiveness. And, by itself, U.S. action won't do much to slow global warming. Meaningful action requires an agreement that extends far beyond our national borders.

And that brings us back to the climate talks in South Africa. Alden Meyer, at the Union of Concerned Scientists, says the weak actions domestically, mean the U.S. doesn't have much leverage in the international talks.

ALDEN MEYER: The U.S. is not able to show its partners how we are going to meet the 17 percent reduction that President Obama committed to. Also, we are struggling to come up with our fair share of the financing for developing country action on technology, on adaptation, on preserving forests. And so, we're not bringing a lot to the table.

HARRIS: For years, Europe has taken the lead at the international talks. But the EU hasn't gotten others to follow. Scott Barrett at Columbia University holds out hope that things would be better if the United States led the way.

SCOTT BARRETT: If you look at lots of global issues in the past, where we've had success, we've also had U.S. leadership. On this issue we've not had proper U.S. leadership.

HARRIS: The great challenge is to identify actions that every major player is willing to take, actions that can make a difference to the climate without upsetting economic competitiveness around the world. What's politically possible may not be as much as scientists say we need to accomplish to stabilize the planet's atmosphere. But Barrett says we need to start somewhere.

BARRETT: I'm not unrealistic about what we're able to achieve, but I'm very confident we can achieve more than we have done so far, which is basically zero.

HARRIS: And he adds, climate change is the hardest problem the world has ever tried to address collectively.

Richard Harris, NPR News.