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NY Times environment reporter joins Lateline -

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NY Times environment reporter joins Lateline

Broadcast: 09/12/2009

Reporter: Tony Jones

Joining Lateline from Copenhagen is New York Times environment reporter, Andrew Revkin.


TONY JONES, PRESENTER: We're joined tonight from the heart of the climate conference in Denmark by
Andrew Revkin. A biologist by training, he spent the past decade and a half reporting on the global
environment for the New York Times. For an expert on the politics of warming, he spent time a lot
of time on the ice, particularly in the Arctic. Andrew Revkin joins us tonight from a rather brisk

Thanks for being there.


TONY JONES: Now there's often a pre-ordained quality to these kind of events, but now The
Guardian's already gone ahead and published the text of this secret Copenhagen agreement, is there
really anything left to negotiate?

ANDREW REVKIN: Plenty, yeah. And again, these texts, they're called, they're what are called
"non-papers". It's one of the funniest terms in this whole process of diplomacy. They don't really
exist and Denmark denied it existed while it sort of acknowledged it did. They're trial balloons,
essentially, and this one got shot down by developing countries who see too much of an attempt by
the Danish presidency that's running the talks to accommodate the United States, and at the same
time the industrialised countries were quickly looking askance at another text that was floated
essentially in response by China, with the support of some other large industrialising countries.
And so everyone is staking positions that they know are untenable, trying to find some kind of
middle course.

TONY JONES: Apparently this secret draft The Guardian published was put together by the
unfortunately named "Circle of Commitment". Now who and what are they?

ANDREW REVKIN: Well, these are - and this is not a new process. I've been covering these talks for
a long time and there's always an attempt by the organisers, both the UN office and whoever's the
chair, depending on where the meeting's held, to pull together small groups of key negotiators to
try to work out some outline of something that would accommodate the main parties. And in this
case, you know, Denmark has been saying it's planning and trying to be as inclusive as possible in
that. But again, you look at these texts, and there are things in there that are pretty clearly
going to be opposed by China, particularly the idea that there might be trade sanctions for
countries that don't cue to restrictions on greenhouse gases. That sort of snuck in and China's
saying, "No way", and other things like that.

TONY JONES: One of the things the draft agreement does, which may well be in the final agreement,
is to put control of the global adaptation fund in the hands of the World Bank. The problem is at
the moment there's very little money to put into that fund. I mean, the developing countries say
they need hundreds of billions of dollars, in fact hundreds of billions per year for a considerable
length of time. At the moment there's only a commitment of, I gather, $10 billion.

ANDREW REVKIN: Right, it's kind of a downpayment offer for a house, and it's been portrayed here as
the, "Well, God, if they're talking $10 billion and we're seeking hundreds of billions, there's no
reason to even start negotiating." That was what led to some of the talk of a walkout by some
developing countries which we wrote about yesterday. And now they're saying, "We're not going to
walk out," but the last day, the 18th, leader of what's called the group of 77 in China was saying
interesting things could happen on the last day if they don't see real movement toward real money.
And you know this treaty process from the very beginning, from 1992, has come with guarantees,
pledges of assistance to the most vulnerable countries and also for poor countries to adopt better
energy technologies. But when you look at that flow over history, there's hardly been any, so it's
not surprising that they would be asking for some kind of concrete guarantee.

TONY JONES: Andrew, this leak was not the first public relations glitch in this conference. I mean,
anyone who saw the opening ceremony would have seen the extraordinary nightmare film where the
little girl gets engulfed in what are best described as Hollywood-style disaster special effects. I
mean, that seemed to indicate that the organisers of this event at the very least have a tin ear to

ANDREW REVKIN: Ah, you know, I'm not a commentator, I'm a journalist, but I do say when I was
watching that, I thought it was a trailer for that movie '2012', which is the end of the world. And
it showed a giant tornado. The science on global warming is equivocal on how it might affect
tornadoes, and we - the United States is most impacted by tornados, I think, than any country. And
the ground cracking open, and clearly designed to get that old message across to sort of scare us
into action. And it's been a message that's always been - well, sociologists say it just doesn't
work, that people's concerns don't build because they're told to be worried or scared, unless
there's a clear-cut path forward. And so I don't know who their advisers were on PR, but it
probably wouldn't have made sense to do that in the end.

TONY JONES: No, you'd want to be sacking them, I would have thought, just to start with. But it
could have been calculated, that film, to enrage climate sceptics or climate change sceptics, and
as we know, as Copenhagen has gotten closer, they've gotten a lot louder. The British economist,
Nicholas Stern, likes to say that they're just recycling the old arguments, but these leaked emails
from the British scientists give them an awful lot of new ammunition. Is it damaging the talks

ANDREW REVKIN: Well, Saudi Arabia - I quoted the lead negotiator for Saudi Arabia last week saying
that he was going to use this as an argument to reassess the need for urgency here. I don't know in
the back channels whether he's already doing that - Mohamad al Saban. But it does provide a lever,
potentially. I don't think in the end it's going to affect the talks here. There's too many
interests pushing in the other direction to have some kind of thing on the table. And the arguments
there that have been energised by those emails, about 14 of which mention me as well, although none
of the contentious, at least as far as I can tell - the arguments that have arisen are about how
science works, how the peer review process works, whether there could be more questions about
climate trends because these data sets weren't always open to the public - that kind of thing. Most
- there've been very strong arguments here. The IPCC, the climate panel, had a big team here on
Monday, or was it Tuesday? It all blends together. It's 24/7. Strongly rebutting that this
undercuts the basic premise that greenhouse gases are warming the planet and will do so
increasingly. And there are people here like Bjorn Lumberg who is the Danish economist, political
scientist, who's been called a sceptic. But he said to me just two minutes - well, five minutes
before I went on air that there's plenty of science, sufficient science to drive some policy to
start reigning in these emissions. So, the idea that this somehow challenges the entire concept of
global warming probably won't hold up too much.

TONY JONES: Andrew, it'll certainly have a political effect though to some degree in the United
States, where a very small number of congressional votes are going to decide the fate of the
climate bill that now the world is waiting on. Do you believe it will get through the Senate in the
coming year?

ANDREW REVKIN: My sense is something will. The problem - well, I shouldn't say the problem. The
challenge with the way American democracy works is - and many others - is that to get the political
consensus you need to pass a bill, you end up weakening it, step by step, to get in another vote
here, another vote there. And there are carbon offsets or a delay in those - you know, auctioning
the permits, whether these permits for carbon emissions are given away or auctioned. The initial
pledge of the Obama administration was that there be no free lunch, no free carbon lunch and now it
looks like there is sort of at least a free breakfast. So whatever comes out the other end, the
question then will be will the atmosphere ever actually notice it? So you could have what some
observers feel is - the worst possible case is you get a bill; so everyone gets their front page
moment, there's a sense of triumph, but it actually doesn't do anything much to divert emissions.
That same question is for the treaty. To get close to 200 nations to agree on some process requires
so much horsetrading and accommodation that, again, having covered global warming since the 1980s
and seeing pulses of interest and concern and then seeing them ebb, I'm very much in the "Show me"
camp of whether this will actually matter to the atmosphere in the long run.

TONY JONES: Yeah, that's the James Hanson argument in a nutshell. But let's move on. We've got a
little time left and I can't finish, in fact, without asking you this, because you did get in a
little bit of hot water yourself recently because of a blog you wrote saying that prostitutes in
Copenhagen were going to offer their services for free to climate scientists. Now, first of all,
any sign of that happening?

ANDREW REVKIN: Well, supposedly the mayor's office was sending notices to hotels to put little
pieces of paper in rooms warning them about prostitution and that kind of thing, and the
prostitutes' society, their organisation, said, "We'll give free services to anyone who provides us
with one of those little pamphlets, fliers." I don't know, I'm not staying in a hotel; we're in a
rented apartment. So, I have no way to judge. And it's - you know, that was a side issue. When
you're writing literally hundreds of thousands of words in the course of a year and you see a wire
story come across your radar about something like that, if I didn't stick a link to that on my
blog, which was mainly about the big issues, I wouldn't really be doing my job and I wouldn't be
staying sane either, because if you just focus on the hardcore heavy issues here it would be a good
way to lose your mind. And then a scientist sent around this (inaudible) email to hundreds of
people and it got out in the blogosphere. He was threatening to never to talk to me again because I
was focusing on these whimsical aspects of this serious issue.

TONY JONES: Yes, you certainly tested the temper of these climate scientists in America, I must
say. I mean, there was a slightly sinister tone to that because they were threatening to cut you
off completely from information. It sort of rang a little bit similar to those emails from Britain.

ANDREW REVKIN: Yeah, and you know, the reality is there's a very strong streak of defensiveness
among the climate science community. I've dealt with these people for 20 years. I've learned a lot
about the climate science and the robustness of this overall picture. But there's clearly a strong
dynamic there, where they are so frustrated that they haven't been able to get society to
understand the risks of a long-lived gas accumulating in ways that are hard to reverse. They're
kind of - they lash out very quickly sometimes, some of them. But keep in mind, I've been kind of
blasted by just about everybody. Just a few weeks ago, Rush Limbaugh, our famous conservative
commentator suggested I go kill myself to save the planet because I happened to mention population
growth as an issue in the global warming question. So it never stops.

TONY JONES: Well, Andrew, don't do that before you come back and talk to us another time in the
future. We've enjoyed talking to you. Thanks very much for being there.

ANDREW REVKIN: It's good to be with you. Thanks.