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Answering Listeners' Questions On Climate Summit


Earlier this week, we asked you for your questions about the climate talks in Copenhagen. And for some answers, we're joined by NPR's science correspondent Richard Harris, who's at the media center in Copenhagen. Hi, Richard.


BLOCK: And we're going to get to those listener questions in a minute. But, first, let's talk about what the goals of this conference there are, especially given the turmoil over the past few days, also, how optimistic people are that the goals can be achieved.

HARRIS: Well, the goals are to come up with some sort of agreement, not even a treaty, but some sort of an agreement, political agreement about what to do about global warming. And ultimately to have a treaty in a year or so from now, but it is proving to be very difficult. The more they talk it seems, the more things they find to disagree about. And as we've been watching the trajectory of these talks, it seems to be getting harder and harder to find an agreement.

BLOCK: And the disagreements that have come up, the main ones, what are they?

HARRIS: Another big issue is to what extent the rapidly developing countries like India and China will actually take legally binding steps to deal with their own emissions, which are growing very rapidly.

BLOCK: Speaking of the developing world, that brings us to our first listener question. This is from Fran Lissamore(ph) of Cleveland Heights, Ohio. And she asks: What is the definition of a developing nation? China exports hundreds of millions of dollars worth of manufactured goods and is considered a developing nation. Why isn't China considered an industrialized nation, she wants to know?

HARRIS: That's a good question. You have to remember that a lot of these definitions really started some years ago when China was a much poor nation. They still are, in many ways, a poor country, as well as an industrialized country. The average Chinese, I think, earns about $3,000 a year. And that's far below what the average American earns. And there are more than 100 million Chinese in poverty. So, part of China is still a very poor country and still trying very hard to develop and part is highly industrialized.

BLOCK: We're going to go from a huge country to a really small one now. Another listener has a question about Iceland. Jay Manenga(ph) of Roberts, Montana tells us that he visited Iceland recently. He met with people in their ministry of energy and was impressed by their efforts to become the world's first carbon-free country. And he wants to know: Are other countries taking them seriously, even though Iceland is a small country?

HARRIS: Yes, some others are. I think Norway also aspires to be a carbon-free country quite quickly. Other countries certainly do want to be carbon-free, too, in the long run. Iceland, of course, does have a great advantage, which is that it has a lot of natural clean energy to begin with. A lot of its electricity comes from either hydroelectric dams or also natural steam geysers. They tap the steam and they use it to generate electricity. So, those are clean sources of energy. So, Iceland's got a leg up. But ultimately, most countries say it will have to be carbon free or something close to it. It may take a century or two to get there.

BLOCK: We got a general question from listener Tony Hugle(ph) of Idaho Falls. And he writes: Why has the news media replaced the term global warming with climate change? Is this effective PR by global warming deniers or is there a scientific basis for using climate change instead of global warming?

HARRIS: So, scientists actually prefer to say climate change because it actually wraps in things like droughts and rainfall and severe weather events and things like that that aren't captured in the phrase global warming.

BLOCK: We got another listener questions and this one is from Goven Wittaveen(ph) of St. Johns, Michigan. And he writes this: Setting aside intentions and ambitions, what actually has changed from one summit to the next? And, therefore, what should we pragmatically expect to result from the Copenhagen conclusions?

HARRIS: China initially got a free pass, essentially, for dealing with its emissions because of its developing nation status. And now the United States and many other industrialized nations say, we can't have China just keep having its emissions grow and grow and grow. We can't give it a free pass anymore. And that's actually one of the major sticking points here.

BLOCK: And one last question on the U.S. role there, President Obama arrives in Copenhagen on Friday. What kind of commitment can he make on behalf of the U.S. and then what is Congress' role in ratifying a treaty?

HARRIS: It's tough because Congress hasn't actually acted yet, so the president can only come and say, this is what we would like to do, but it's contingent on Congress acting and that leaves a lot of people upset because it's not even making a firm promise here. But there are reasons that he's not.

BLOCK: Okay, Richard, thanks a lot.

HARRIS: Sure, my pleasure.

BLOCK: That's NPR's Richard Harris talking with us from Copenhagen. And thanks to all of you who sent in your questions. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Award-winning journalist Richard Harris has reported on a wide range of topics in science, medicine and the environment since he joined NPR in 1986. In early 2014, his focus shifted from an emphasis on climate change and the environment to biomedical research.