Grist's coverage of Copenhagen climate talks

Timothy Wirth, head of the United Nations Foundation, has a long-term perspective on climate negotiations — and he says people who contend that no deal is better than an imperfect deal are “flat wrong.” While serving as undersecretary of state for global affairs during the Clinton administration, Wirth led the U.S. delegation to Kyoto, Japan, in 1997, where the Kyoto Protocol was signed. Wirth previously served as a U.S. representative and senator from Colorado.

I spoke with him on Wednesday, and here are highlights in video and text:

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Q. What makes this climate conference different from previous ones?

A. It’s very different because there are 110 heads of state coming, and when you have a head of state coming, he or she has to learn the issue, they have to really know the substance of what they’re doing. 

Sign Up for More News from GristAnd second, they have to come and deliver something — they can’t just show up. And each of these heads of state then has to see as other heads of state [deliver something]. They reinforce each other and momentum gets going. In many ways, it’s like if you go to a political convention and the state of Wyoming votes for so-and-so and the state of Arkansas votes for so-and-so and you get momentum going.  That’s the way political consensus builds and that’s what will happen here.

Q. What’s your feeling about the progress so far?

A. I think we’re making very real progress. A year ago, the U.S. had taken no national action at all and had no political commitment. Now, the U.S. has changed very dramatically. What happens in Copenhagen will accelerate the speed with which the U.S. moves.

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Q. What are the most important components of a meaningful agreement that you want to see by Friday?

A. The agreement will have percentage reductions. In the U.S., we‘ll be somewhere in the 17 percent range [below 2005 levels by 2020] — my guess is a little bit higher than that by the time the president gets here.

There will be a financing provision, which is extremely important — how do we deal with the developing world.

There will be a provision related to monitoring and evaluation — the way it’ll get resolved I think is cooperation between the U.S. and China.

There will be a technology-transfer section.

Those will be four of the major elements in an agreement, each of which is absolutely doable, and we’ll have an agreement by Friday and it will be a pretty good one.

Q. What do you want to hear from Obama?

A. I want to hear whatever Obama wants to say. [Laughs.] I’m really pleased that he’s coming. I think he understands this issue. And what we really want to see is not only his commitment, but the kind of leadership that he gives to our government. I think that his leadership is extremely important to mobilize the White House at the senior levels, to mobilize his economic team at a senior level, and to organize our diplomatic efforts with China.

Q. Protestors have been making the case that a weak deal is worse than no deal at all. What’s your position on that?

A. To go on a very difficult, long journey, you have to take a first step. And what’s happened is the United States has taken a major set of first steps — that’s extremely important.  Having the world get together the way it has here in Copenhagen in my opinion has been a great success — it was even before Copenhagen met, because so many heads of state have been involved and have had to learn this issue. And finally, the fact that this has mobilized relationships between the United States and China, the United States and India, is extremely important.

So those who say that no deal is better than what is going on here are flat wrong. They really don’t know anything about how government works and they’ve never taken a long trip.  Maybe they’ve just gone next door to see the neighbor and watch television.

Q. In Kyoto, U.S. leaders were a step ahead of Congress, and that can polarize an already contentious political climate. Is there a concern that if President Obama is a step ahead of Congress, that could hurt our efforts in the spring to move climate legislation through?

A. I think that there is a real concern that the administration does not want to get too far out in front of where it thinks the Congress is. It has to be very careful about that and very respectful of the fact that we have three branches of government. Most people around the world don’t understand that we have something different from a parliamentary system. So the president has to be careful about how far he goes, he has to bring members along. Unfortunately, because of the health-care debate, there are no senators here in these negotiations to talk to people and hear people — I think that’s going to make it a little bit more difficult for Obama to get the votes in the spring.

In the Senate you have to get 60 votes, out of a field of probably 70 possible votes. That’s going to take a piece of legislative jujitsu. [Sen. John] Kerry is well on his way toward really understanding that. [The Senate climate bill] will probably look a lot different from the Waxman-Markey bill [in the House] — it will have different characteristics.

Remember that the president of the United States has enormous regulatory authorities at the EPA, and Lisa Jackson, head of the EPA, has begun to exercise those authorities. The president has to tell people as well that he’s prepared to use that.

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