U.S. declares carbon dioxide a pollutant, promises to pay its share

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Jonathan Pershing. File photo by World Resources Institute Staff via Flickr

COPENHAGEN–The United States marked the first day of the UN Climate Change Conference by declaring carbon dioxide a pollutant, by defending its goals for greenhouse-gas reductions, and by promising to pay “its fair share” of a $10 billion annual fund for less developed nations.

In return, U.S. climate-change envoy Jonathan Pershing insisted those nations comply with a system for verifying their efforts.

“We need public reporting, with maximum transparency,” Pershing said in his opening press conference on the first day of proceedings. “We need a means to review our individual and collective efforts.

“This is what we are bringing to the table:  an unprecedented level of effort, a commitment to act domestically and internationally, in terms of financial and technological support and domestic emissions reductions.  But to succeed, we need a global effort. We need to capture and build on the extraordinary array of pledges made by countries around the world over the past several weeks and months – to internationalize them in our accords here.”

White House spokesman Joe Gibbs made a similar promise Friday that the U.S. would pay its “fair share.” Most of a group of environmental leaders praised the Obama Administration following Pershing’s remarks today.

“For the first time, the U.S. said it would pay its fair share of the $10 billion short-term financing package,” said Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists. But Damon Moglen of Greenpeace called $10 billion per year obviously inadequate and downplayed the U.S. commitment:

“So far the U.S. has put no money on the table. We have only a statement from the White House saying the U.S. will pay its fair share.”

Earlier this year, an alliance of small-island nations that face peril from rising sea levels demanded $400 billion per year. And last week African negotiators walked out of preliminary negotiations to protest the modesty of the 450 ppm goal set by the developing world.

Pershing defended the reductions proposed in the U.S. to reach that number: “Our number gets us there, but then it depends on what others do…. Unless the world can stand together, we won’t solve the problem, which is what we fear in negotiations.”

Jennifer Haverkamp of the Environmental Defense Fund said the Obama Administration started 10 years behind the European Union and has made a concerted effort this year to catch up: “You could say that they have surrounded the issue of climate change and are approaching it on several fronts.”

She cited today’s endangerment finding, which empowers the EPA to act to regulate emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases through the Clean Air Act. If the Senate fails to pass a cap and trade bill, the finding permits the EPA to enact one without legislative action.

Haverkamp also mentioned $80 billion in green funding in the Stimulus Bill passed in January, the restoration of the Major Economies Forum–which has encouraged consensus through a series of negotiating meetings between 17 key nations, including China and India–and the appointment of Pershing, the nation’s special envoy on climate change.

Pershing was pitching warmup on the first day of the Copenhagen proceedings for a series of prominent U.S. figures to follow, including Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson. The closer, on Dec. 18, will be President Obama.

Asked if the “Climategate” email scandal would hamper efforts in Copenhagen, Pershing called it “a small blip in the history of this process.”

“The short answer is, I think it will have virtually no effect at all…. What I think is unfortunate and shameful is the way some scientists who have devoted their lives are being pilloried in the press.”

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