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.
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.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Here's a complexity for the United States. U.S. negotiators in Paris are trying to lead the world toward a climate agreement. They're doing that while American politicians debate whether climate change is happening at all.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Just yesterday, Republic Sen. Ted Cruz highlighted his doubts. And we hear his case in an interview elsewhere in this program.
GREENE: In Paris, there is no debate that people are altering the climate. The debate there is what nearly 200 nations will do about it.
INSKEEP: It's also about whether the United States will lead and keep its commitments. All Things Considered host Ari Shapiro is at the summit in Paris.
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: The U.S. is different from many of the other countries here. First of all, it's big. In the 20th century, no country in the world emitted more carbon. And second of all.
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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Everybody else is taking climate change really seriously.
SHAPIRO: Here in Paris last week, President Obama said, in other advanced democracies, the fact of climate change is not really up for political debate.
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OBAMA: They are 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 or not we have to do something about it.
SHAPIRO: While President Obama was in Paris, House Republicans in Washington were debating a bill to gut the administration's clean energy plan. This is not just small-ball domestic politics that the rest of the world ignores. Other countries at this summit accuse the U.S. 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. He gave a long presentation comparing the U.S. to India.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
CHANDRA BHUSHAN: If all the U.S. power plants was considered a country, it would have been the third-largest polluter of greenhouse gas in the world.
SHAPIRO: This is an area called climate generations. It's outside of where the main negotiations are taking place. And in this hall, you find the environmental groups, the civil society organizations, the activists, the volunteers, people from all over the world.
CLAUDINE PIERSON: My name is Claudine Pierson, and I'm a conference interpreter working here for the COP 21 in Paris. I was really surprised to see so many American around. How are they perceived? Like polluters, I guess.
SHAPIRO: She's French, and she says everyone here knows that Congress is fighting Obama on carbon emissions.
PIERSON: Yes, they're well aware that because it was all over the newspapers, so we know.
SHAPIRO: And lots of people share her view of the U.S. as an outlier. Mamadou Mboudji is with an environmental organization from Senegal.
MAMADOU MBOUDJI: I perceive the American as a country that does not respect the others' opinions.
SHAPIRO: Hanging over all of this is the fact that the U.S. has walked away from global climate deals before. Still, lots of people here note a big change since Obama took office. They say the U.S. is no longer seen as a spoiler in these talks. The question now is whether the hot political debate in Washington is tying the hands of American negotiators in Paris. U.S. Energy Secretary Earnest Moniz told me absolutely not.
EARNEST MONIZ: The programs that have been put forward will be executed. They are based upon existing authorities, whether it is efficiency standards for vehicles or the clean power plan for power plants.
SHAPIRO: But can negotiators from the U.S. really negotiate in good faith given that, for example, Republicans in Congress threaten to shut down the federal government if the U.S. delegation here commits to paying too much to developing countries to deal with impacts of climate change?
MONIZ: Well, look, there are certain issues. You put your finger on it. There are certainly certain issues that require congressional action. But again, most of the steps that we are taking - the president's plan is on existing authorities, and this program will go forward.
RACHEL KYTE: I think that what the phrases you hear here are that everybody understands that the American delegation's negotiating in good faith.
SHAPIRO: Rachel Kyte operates at the highest levels in these talks. She's the World Bank's special envoy for climate change. She says, in meeting rooms here, people get that U.S. climate politics can be complicated.
KYTE: And that is a complexity that everybody understands that the U.S. will have to work its way through.
SHAPIRO: Kyte says people outside the United States are a bit perplexed by this, but it's not the first time the rest of the world has found the U.S. perplexing.
INSKEEP: That's Ari Shapiro of NPR's All Things Considered, who's covering the climate summit in Paris. And Ari's still on the line. Ari, how do negotiators from other countries account for the possibility that the next American president might walk away from part or all of this agreement?
SHAPIRO: You know, I asked the chief U.S. negotiator, Todd Stern, about this before the summit began. And he told me, despite all the rhetoric, there's actually a long history of presidents from different parties respecting the international agreements that their predecessors have signed onto. If you look at nuclear arms treaties or the laws of war, these are international agreements that have withstood changes in administration, changes of party. And he expects that agreement that might come out of Paris would be the same.
INSKEEP: You refer to a concern in your story, Ari, about the United States getting disadvantaged in an agreement like this, that the United States gives away the store to developing nations that don't have the same requirements the U.S. does. And I want to bring another voice into the conversation. NPR's Christopher Joyce is covering these climate talks. Christopher, does this deal, as it's shaping up, give some advantage to developing nations?
CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: It has to give some. I mean, everybody's coming to the table. It's like a poker game; everybody's got a different hand. And the U.S. wants to keep them in the game. And so they're quite willing to up the ante, so to speak, and, you know, promise to give them assistance so that they'll play, so that they'll do something this time, as they've never done before. At the same time, of course, the U.S. has to derate this language very carefully because they have to take it home. And if it does look like they're giving away the store, then, of course, they're going to face a lot of resistance to the idea that the taxpayers in the United States are paying for developing countries to do whatever they want. So they've added language by which they can watch and monitor and verify what developing countries are doing with the money that we're going to give them over the next two or three decades so that they can pay attention and be sure that the money's not wasted.
INSKEEP: And so there's an effort to have an assurance that developing nations will do something.
JOYCE: Yes, but the language is extremely delicate. This is what the diplomats are fighting over now, today, tomorrow, the day after, is exactly what kind of language is going to guarantee that.
INSKEEP: OK, that's NPR's Ari Shapiro and Christopher Joyce. Thanks to you both.
SHAPIRO: Good to talk to you.
JOYCE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.