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Connectedness of climate change and health care

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The health care debate is sucking up most of the energy in Washington. So it makes sense that the world is concerned the US might come empty-handed to global climate talks in December. Conrad Wilson explains how the heath care debate is threatening the chances of a global climate treaty.

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Transcript: Conrad Wilson, October 12, 2009

The health care debate is sucking up most of the energy in Washington. So it makes sense that the world is concerned the US might show up at global climate talks in December empty handed. Conrad Wilson explains how the heath care debate is threatening the chances of a global climate treaty:

European countries, along with China and other big global polluters, are wrestling with how to deal with global warming. But as the world gears up for the climate change conference in Copenhagen, Washington is focusing on health care.

The timing of Washington's health care debate has many countries scratching their heads. And it has environmentalists and climate folks nervous. All agree health care is important; but globally, they say, it's out of step.

And when you ask Americans what the President is working on, few mention climate change.

Person 1: "Probably health care and fixing the economy."

Person 2: "On the economy. And fixing the economy. Actually, no, I'll change that. Actually, what I think he's focusing on is the health care issue."

Person 3: "This week, Afghanistan. Last week, health care. The week before, the economy."

Person 4: "He's focusing on health care primarily, which is very important. But he also needs to maintain his focus on the economy."

What's not being talked about is climate change and the global talks coming up in Copenhagen.

Dan Esty is a professor of Environmental Law & Policy at Yale University. He also has experience as a climate negotiator. Esty predicts the health care debate will continue through the end of the year.

"I think it's going to be very difficult, given the political effort that's going to be required to achieve success on health care, to imagine that climate change can be taken on during the same time period."

Esty says there's only so much President Obama and members of Congress can take on at once. Climate change and health care are two major issues that can't be resolved overnight.

As time wears on, the talks are shaping up for an outcome that looks more like the failed Kyoto climate agreement from a decate ago. After Kyoto, Congress refused to join the rest of th eworld in capping carbon emissions. Esty fears that could happen again.

"The health care debate, at the present moment, is occupying all the political oxygen in Washington and that means there's really nothing left with which to drive forward the response to climate change. And, as a result, our negotiator will go to Copenhagen without any real game plan in place for how the United States is going to step up and be a constructive part of the response of the build up of green house gases in the atmosphere."

A lot of people say the US needs to pass a climate change law before going to Copenhagen. But others say maybe not. They argue it's not a bad idea for the US to go into global climate talks without a law because it could allow negotiators to be more flexible.

Regardless of how it's done, cutting greenhouse gases is now more pressing than ever before. With Washington paralyzed by the health care debate, the timing is just bad for climate change.

"If there were ever a time. You can say that about health care and about climate policy."

That's energy analyst Randy Udall. He says President Obama has a lot of his plate and should be ready to compromise.

"Obama's not going to get nearly as much as many of us had hoped for in terms of health care reform. And he's not going to get nearly as much as many of us had hoped for in terms of energy policy. He will get something. But it not going to be a half a loaf, it'll be a quarter of a loaf."

Pundits say President Obama is putting all his political chips in the fight for health care. And, if he loses, he'll have almost nothing left to spend on climate change.

For The Environment Report, I'm Conrad Wilson.

Copyright 2009. The Regents of the University Of Michigan. Used with permission.

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