New Delhi: Former US vice-president Al Gore, who is now a global campaigner for action against climate change, was in New Delhi to participate in the two-day Hindustan Times Leadership Summit that ended on Saturday. In an interview, he says that many US states and cities are moving on their own to regulate carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, but more is expected of the US federal government. He also agrees there is growing global appreciation of India’s role in multilateral negotiations on climate change and trade. Edited excerpts:
Do you think the US has abdicated its leadership role in battling climate change?
For those who expected the US to play a more active leadership role at Copenhagen, it was certainly a disappointment that the US Senate did not pass legislation. But the glass was half full in the sense that the US House of Representatives did pass the legislation and President (Barack) Obama is very much in favour of it, and the Environmental Protection Agency is proceeding even without legislation to regulate the reduction of CO2 emissions. Two-thirds of American people support moving forward on the issue. Many states and cities are moving ahead on their own. There is progress alongside disappointment. But clearly, there was more required than ended up being done. But the work is still under way and I am optimistic that the US will rise to the challenge.
The Chicago climate exchange has just closed down. What is the sentiment in the industry on carbon pricing? How will they be made to pay?
Yes, that is why we need more laws and policies and ultimately a global treaty. Some nations are already pricing carbon. They see it fit in their own self-interest. But simply relying on voluntary measures is insufficient because the power of the markets is so enormous. It has to be integrated into the routine decisions in the marketplace. But because it embodies such a big change, there is great resistance to it. And carbon-intensive polluters, particularly coal and oil companies, have fiercely opposed these changes. But they have to come.
Forum for change: Al Gore says there is no other forum besides the United Nations within which to arrive at a global solution to climate change. Vijay Verma / PTI
The Copenhagen Accord does not mention anything on burden sharing in terms of CO2 emission cuts. Does the US expect developing nations to lift an unfair burden in emission cuts?
No, not at all. The US has long accepted and recognized the principle of common but differentiated obligations. In addition to (a) per capita argument, there is also the historic contribution argument. But the essence of the challenge here, in equity terms, is that there are two competing realities, which are both valid. On the one hand, the wealthy countries have historically contributed more to the problem and higher per capita emissions, but China is the largest polluter overall and is still increasing rapidly. Also, the developing countries as a group surpassed the developed countries (in emissions). So we have to acknowledge and incorporate both of these as well as per capita emissions. But the way to reconcile these two competing realities is with assistance from wealthy countries to developing countries. Many promises have been made and fewer have been redeemed. But in order to get an agreement, we have to make good on those promises.
If nothing is delivered at the Cancun climate meeting, would you say that everybody will lose trust in the UN process and it will be the end?
I doubt that will happen. It is a danger. But I doubt that will happen because the problem is not going away. If the politicians fail, the problem is still there. It is getting worse and we have to face up to it. And there is no other forum besides the UN (United Nations) within which to arrive at a global solution. Now it does look challenging at this point, I acknowledge that. And some have argued that bilateral and regional approaches might get us closer to where we need to be. But ultimately, there must be a global agreement. And the only way to get there is to build grassroots awareness, support and sense of urgency to the point where politicians feel the pressure from the people to do the right thing.
But polls in the US are saying that interest in the US on climate change is decreasing.
I am not sure that is true. I know the polls that you are citing, but I mentioned it in my remarks (that) virtually all the change has been in one political party. And it has come about largely because the leaders of that party and some of their communication organizations have really driven the point of view that there is no such thing as the climate crisis. That conflicts so directly with the reality that it is only a matter of time before that illusion collapses.
Does your domestic policy imperatives impede serious policy initiatives, particularly on environment?
It makes them more difficult, yes. But this is hardly the first time there has been public anger and difficulties in the period of transition, but it does make it more challenging. The recent (mid-term) elections make it more challenging. But elections come and they go. Two years ago, (the) US turned one way, and two years later another way. Maybe two years from now, it will turn back. And this should not be a partisan issue. It should be a point of view adopted by all political parties.
Indian politicians say the world’s perception of India has changed from that of a spoiler to a proactive player in multilateral negotiations on climate change and trade. Do you agree?
Oh yes, definitely. PM (Prime Minister) Manmohan Singh is tremendously respected and I think the Indian political system generally. I think that India’s perceived posture of leadership in the world is very different from the perception only a few years ago. Maybe the older perception was inaccurate. I don’t know. But certainly, (the) perception today is India is providing its share of leadership with integrity and forthrightness. The world today understands the tremendous challenges India faces and respects the tremendous progress India is making. I think the general perception is dominated by optimism and hope.
Time is of the essence in dealing with climate change, but the UN process is painfully slow. How do we resolve this contradiction?
If I felt that we could make more progress by focusing on regional and bilateral processes, then I would advocate that. But ultimately it has to be global. But (a) sense of urgency is very grave. Today, we will put another 90 million tonnes of global warming pollution into the atmosphere. Approximately 20% of what we put up there will be there a thousand years from today. We have already heated the atmosphere by one degree Celsius but we have heated the oceans another degree, which will then later heat the atmosphere even further. The longer we wait, the more damage is done and the longer lasting the damage will be and the transition will be that much more expensive. And yet, because there is this time lag in the re-emergence of the heat, we don’t see with our eyes or feel with our senses the results of what we are doing today. CO2 is invisible, tasteless, odourless and has no price tag. So it is out of sight and out of mind even as it continues to build up the damage. Some people call it the problem from hell.