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Much Of The World Perplexed That Climate Debate Continues In U.S.

President Obama addresses the opening ceremony of the World Climate Change Conference 2015 (COP21) on Nov. 30.
Jim Watson
AFP/Getty Images
President Obama addresses the opening ceremony of the World Climate Change Conference 2015 (COP21) on Nov. 30.

At the U.N. climate summit in Paris, the U.S. has a big footprint. Cabinet officials scurry from meeting to meeting, trying to get a binding deal that would help some 200 countries slow the planet's warming. Yet in some ways, the United States is an outlier.

"Everybody else is taking climate change really seriously," President Obama said during his visit to Paris at the start of the summit. "They think it's a really big problem."

As the president acknowledged, he leads one of the few advanced democracies in the world where climate change is still the subject of political debate.

"You travel around Europe, and you talk to leaders of governments and the opposition, and they're arguing about a whole bunch of things. One thing they're not arguing about is whether the science of climate change is real and whether we have to do something about it," he said.

As the summit began, House Republicans in Washington were debating a bill to gut the Obama administration's clean energy plan.

"These EPA rules affect jobs, and they affect the amount of money in the pockets of moms and dads all across this great country," said South Carolina Republican Jeff Duncan.

Demonstrators at the U.N. climate summit in Paris hold signs asking: "What are we going to do about the United States?"
Ari Shapiro / NPR
Demonstrators at the U.N. climate summit in Paris hold signs asking: "What are we going to do about the United States?"

This is not just small-ball domestic politics that the rest of the world ignores. The debate in Washington shapes the perception of the United States in Paris. Some countries at the summit accuse the U.S. — which, in the 20th century, has emitted more carbon than any other — of trying to have it both ways: emitting more carbon per capita than almost any other country, while wagging fingers at the rest of the world.

Chandra Bhushan is with the Indian delegation in Paris. He gave a long presentation comparing the U.S. to India.

"If all the U.S. power plants were considered a country, it would have been the third largest polluter of greenhouse gases in the world," he noted.

Changing Perceptions Of U.S.

Outside of the main complex where negotiations are taking place, an area called "Climate Generations" provides a gathering place for environmental groups, civil society organizations, activists and others from around the world.

There are indigenous tribes and bicycle-powered computer chargers, groups singing hymns and people waving placards. French interpreter Claudine Pierson says she was "surprised to see how many Americans are around."

And how are they perceived?

"Like polluters, I guess," she says.

Everyone is aware that Congress is fighting Obama on carbon emissions, Pierson says, "because it was all over the newspapers."

Many people share her view of the U.S.

Mamadou Mboudji is an an environmental advocate from Senegal.

"I perceived the Americans as a country that does not respect the others' opinions," Mboudji says.

Hanging over all of this is the fact that the U.S. has walked away from global climate deals before — most notably, the landmark 1997 Kyoto Protocol.

Still, many people at the summit note a big change since Obama took office. They say the U.S. is no longer seen as a spoiler in these talks.

"The relationship has never been this close, open and transparent," says Tony de Brum, the foreign minister for the Marshall Islands. "In all my years working with the U.S. government, I've never felt them more a real part of the effort to resolve the problem."

U.S. Faces A Political 'Complexity'

The question now is whether the hot political debate in Washington is tying the hands of American negotiators in Paris. U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz says it isn't.

"The programs that have been put forward will be executed," he said in an interview this week in Paris. "They are based on existing authorities, whether it is efficiency standards for vehicles or the clean power plan for power plants."

Yet as Republicans threaten to shut down the federal government if the U.S. delegation in Paris commits to paying too much money to developing countries to deal with the impacts of climate change, Moniz acknowledges that "certainly, certain issues require congressional action."

"I think the phrases that you hear here are that everybody understands that the American delegation is negotiating in good faith," says Rachel Kyte, the World Bank's special envoy for climate change.

People understand that U.S. climate politics can be complicated, she says.

"And that is a complexity that everybody understands the U.S. will have to work its way through," says Kyte.

People outside the United States are a bit "perplexed" by this, Kyte adds. But, it's not the first time the rest of the world has found the U.S. perplexing.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Consideredgrew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
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