Interview With Frances Beinecke, President of Natural Resources Defense Council

No matter if you're a climate activist or a firm believer in the political process, there's no getting around that the negotiations leading up to next month's COP15 conference have been tough of late. The need to keep pushing for strong and immediate climate action has never been greater -- something which NRDC President Frances Beinecke's just-released book Clean Energy, Common Sense does compellingly -- so, when over the weekend it was de facto officially announced that Copenhagen will just produce a framework for future binding action it seemed the perfect entrée for the latest TreeHugger interview:TREEHUGGER: In light of what's happened over the past two days in Asia, is delaying an agreement in Copenhagen a bad thing?

FRANCES BEINECKE: No, it's not. First of all Copenhagen is only three weeks away, so it was increasingly apparent that it would be very hard to cobble out the final agreement there.

Clearing the air in Singapore and having this two-step process and being clear that that is the objective is a good thing: Because it will make the next three weeks much more productive, in shaping what can be agreed to there, and in setting up a timetable for reaching that final international binding treaty.

This is a long, complicated process. Every step is hard. It's very important to keep the pressure on, as to the urgency of the issue, and how significant the impacts are. Sometimes when you're in the process and it goes on for a long time, it's important to keep the fundamental mission upfront and in your mind about why it's important to do this in the first place.

Even though the negotiations are very difficult and clearly this was the inevitable outcome, you can't lose track of why it's so important in the first place, and has consequential impacts.

TH: What about the differences between the science and the politics? There seems to be a gap that hasn't narrowed all that much in the past year. How do we bridge that gap?

FB: We have always felt that the critical thing is to get going. Clearly in a time of severe recession the costs of getting going -- particularly for political leaders who are elected every so many years -- are very much in the forefront and make that commitment harder.

TH: I understand the motive to get going. 100% crucial. But looking from the outside, not being inside the negotiating rooms, it sometimes seems these steps being taken aren't even a shoe-length away...

FB: ...I don't know what the alternative to that is. If you're talking about the US, we're in a political process. If you're talking about the global arena, that's the way agreements get reached. It would of course be great -- and we'd totally support leaping forward and doing something dramatic -- but that isn't the way things get cobbled out.

Our focus is that the steps that do get taken are real. That they take you down the path that you need to go down. And that there's an opportunity to continue to strengthen that.

We look back and the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments, where people screamed and hollered it's going to be too expensive, they couldn't afford it, and it wouldn't work. And it worked. It worked faster than people expected, at much lass cost. The Montreal Protocol was the same thing. Where the science got stronger and stronger, countries agreed to take much stronger steps. Those are two, one domestic, one international, very strong examples of success.

That's what we're banking on. As this thing get's worked out...

TH: ...It will be strengthened...

FB: ...It has to be strengthened.

The urgency demands action, as soon as we can get it. It also demands, significant action, and I think the significant action has to happen more over time, but the commitment to action has to happen as quickly as possible.

TH: If emissions have to peak 2015, 2020 at the absolute latest, there's not a lot of time to strengthen...

FB: ...No there isn't. Dr Pachauri [IPCC chairman] says if you don't act by 2012 it's too late and 2012 is right around the corner. Even if you act by 2010, putting that whole mechanism in place by 2012 will take a tremendous amount of effort.

It's very important to keep it in people's minds, the agreement is just the beginning. It takes a long time to reach the agreement, but then you actually have to do it. Both mapping out how it has to been done, holding nations accountable, and ensuring that you have a legally binding agreement, with some sort of enforcement mechanism is really critical. More than any other we've worked on, if it's not adhered to the consequences are devastating.

On the other hand: We're trying to reach an international agreement --and we will -- but, increasingly all of the countries are mindful of the impacts on them. It's not like 190 nations are getting together to benefit a few. 190 nations are getting together because they're all implicated in this.

It's not altruism that brings people to the table, it's consequences to their own people.

TH: Then how do we get over that first-mover problem? Right now, everyone's looking to the US, saying the US doesn't have a climate bill, so we're...

FB: ...But, Mat, they're taking actions...

TH: ...True. They are...

FB: ...You go to China, they have stronger fuel efficiency on cars. They have a national renewables standard. They have a national efficiency standard for buildings. They're not sitting there doing nothing...

TH: ...I'm not saying otherwise. But on an international agreement, there's been lots of finger-pointing going on.

FB: I actually hope this agreement in Singapore, in some ways, clears the air and allows real work on how this thing's going to be mapped out, rather than getting to Copenhagen and having a lot of finger-pointing. Because it isn't productive.

I mean, it won't be productive in the United States Senate if Copenhagen is a blame game for the US. That's not going to propel action here -- which we're very, very mindful of. That would be very, very problematic here. On the other hand, yes, the world is waiting for the United States.

We're pushing for action. The president is committed to action. The guy's been there for ten months, eleven months, twelve months. I've talked to one of our staffers, whose been on the Hill for a long time; what it takes to get complicated legislation though... It doesn't get through that quickly.

The other thing is we're stuck behind health care. You meet with people from other nations, and their first question is "What's happening with health care." Because they want to know when the logjam breaks and this can come onto the table.

So do we...

TH: Backing up a bit: Holding politicians accountable. During Climate Week, Dr Pachauri said to a bunch of us that politicians won't do this alone. We need a strong...

FB: ...civil society...

TH: ...Yes, civil society; and in his words a strong grassroots movement.

FB: I totally agree with that.

I think we're getting there. That's one of the reasons to get the book out. Get out of the Beltway and make something that's successful for people who are curious, confused, wonder and want to know what the state [of climate change] is.

Civil society is interesting... I was meeting with the [United Nations] Secretary General last week, and I also met with him in Bali, and he said the same thing both times: The role of civil society in making this happen is absolutely vital. This has to be a bottoms-up, outspoken, aggressive effort to hold politicians accountable.

There's an inside role, of how does this thing actually get done? And how does it get designed? And made accountable and enforceable? All of those policy things which we at NRDC are particularly good at... But the voice of the people in every district, in every state, particularly where we need people to vote for this, is critical.

There's so much push back from the other side -- from the Chamber of Commerce, from the National Association of Manufacturers, so to just even that out... where they have tens of millions, if not more, to spend on that message... the only counterweight to that is voice. It's incredibly important to get that voice out there.

TH: How do you balance the voice of "Every small step is a step in the right direction" and that of "Here is the science and what you're doing is not enough, not enough, not enough"?

FB: I think that's fine. There's a spectrum of environmental organizations. Everybody has a role to play. If you have Greenpeace and [Friends of the Earth] saying 'not enough', or you have Bill McKibben saying 350[ppm] that puts the context of urgency out there for the American public.

At the same time you've got to be in there, working every day, as we do, on what are the building blocks to get this done.

This is the first step in a very complicated process, domestically and internationally. Critically in the legislation on the domestic front is the science-look back. No one who's working on this, who supports the ACES bill, the EPW bill, the process in the Senate -- who are absolutely committed to that -- none of us believe that that in the end is enough.

But we do believe that getting the US on a trajectory, right now, is absolutely critical. Those bolder targets that the science dictates, are not wrong, but they're not achievable until you get going.

I would never give up the opportunity to get going, to hold out for something that this Congress will not do. There isn't any political outlook that shows a better Congress. I mean, after the mid-term elections, do we think Congress is going to have a stronger Democratic majority to get a stronger bill? Extremely unlikely. We have the best political conditions that we've had in a very long time, and that we will have in the foreseeable future.

Congress needs to hear powerfully from the grassroots. And we need to push as hard as we can for an outcome that has environmental performance that gets us on that trajectory, which we believe this legislation does.

More of TreeHugger's interview with Frances Beinecke

Tags: Congress | Energy Efficiency | Global Climate Change | Global Warming Solutions | United States