Strobe Talbott, president of the Brookings Institution.
Strobe Talbott, president of the Brookings Institution. - 
Listen To The Story


Kai Ryssdal: Now that the energy bill is on the legislative calendar, we're going to be hearing more about global warming and how to go about stopping it. Strobe Talbott, the president of the Broookings Institution, says in a new book that the relevant comparison here is nuclear weapons, and how the superpowers managed not to blow everybody up over the course of the Cold War. He says we ought to control climate change the same way -- get the big polluters on board first, and then you bring the whole world into it.

Strobe Talbott: The United Nations is very important to this process, but it is a mistake, I think, to count on a group of 192 different countries to come to a consensus in a meaningful time frame that will allow us to take meaningful action. We need to count more on what the United States, the European Union, China and India can do on their own, but coordinating with each other rather than a formal, legally-binding treaty. It'd be great to have a formal, legally-binding treaty, but it just takes too long to get one.

Ryssdal: Here's the thing, though. The Chinese and the Indians want economically what we and the Europeans have. And the way to get that is for them to grow and not necessarily to constrain their carbon output -- their emissions of global greenhouse gases. How do you get even those two to agree?

Talbott: Well you've hit the nail on the head. That is exactly the dilemma. But the trump card here is self-interest. India and China both have a self-interest in licking the problem, or at least as we say, mitigating the problem of global warming because they are themselves so vulnerable. In fact, both of those countries -- and they know it -- are already paying a price in terms of the loss of arable land, the increased danger of floods and droughts. They are already experiencing the consequences of global warming.

Ryssdal: As we expand this global warming control regime that you've come up with, what about the model of rich countries paying poorer countries to help them control their greenhouse gas emissions. Is that something that you continue?

Talbott: Short answer, yes. There's got to be heavy lifting by the developing world. The poorer countries as well. But the onus is going to have to be kind of ront-loaded to the developed world. And I think one of the... Well, Copenhagen was a mess. It was an instructive mess, which is to say it made clear that insofar that there can be progress, it's going to have to be led, essentially, by those countries whose leaders met together on a completely, kind of impromptu basis at the very end and rescued a bit of an accord out of what otherwise would have been a complete failure. And here I'm talking about President Obama, the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, and the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. But if President Obama goes to the Cancun summit, which is the follow-up to Copenhagen at the end of this year, 2010, and still doesn't have American legislation, his ability to lead the international community is going to be greatly diminished.

Ryssdal: What does it say that we in this country can't even get our act together, and yet you recommend us putting together some kind of big powers agreement on global warming?

Talbott: What it says is we got to get our act together, and we have to have kind of a breakthrough -- not just at the level of our political leadership, but on the part of American civil society as a whole. Because if we don't rise to this challenge in the next maximum 10 years, maybe five years, we are really dooming to very, very hard times on a much less livable planet generations infinitely into the future. And I think that we have the beginning of a kind of, what I would hope, might even be a revolution in what you might call the global civics of this issue.

Ryssdal: Strobe Talbott is the president of the Brookings Instution. He is the author, most recently, of a book called "Fast Forward" with his colleague Bill Antholis. Mr. Talbott, thanks so much for your time.

Talbott: Delighted. Kai, thanks so much.