Does the Pew Center’s Eileen Claussen get the dire nature of our climate predicament — or did Duke’s Bill Chameides misquote her

Impressions from National Academies Climate Summit Dr. Bill Chameides is the dean of Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment and a member of the National Academy of Sciences. He blogs at and his own, which is certainly worth reading.

He just posted Impressions from National Academies Climate Summit,” in which he drops a bombshell quote from Eileen Claussen, head of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change (the two are pictured above). But Chameides treats the quote as if it were just another piece of the puzzle, rather than a stunning revelation of a lack of understanding of climate science — assuming the quote is accurate. Here is what he blogged:

International Policy Will Be Key

“Binding targets for the developing nations is [sic] out of the question.”

— Eileen Claussen, President, Pew Center on Global Climate Change

Without emission policies in the BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India, and China), it will be impossible to keep the CO2 concentration below 650 [parts per million].”

— Lorents Lorentsen, Chief, Environment Directorate, Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development

(Note that many scientists believe that CO2 concentrations must be held at or below 450 ppm.)

“How we [Americans] move [on climate] will determine the international direction. To lead, we must act.”

— Eileen Claussen

Addressing the problem of climate change requires virtually every nation to curb their greenhouse gas emissions, but international action is unlikely without U.S. action. Yet, for many U.S. lawmakers, international commitments are essential before the United States acts.

Chameides’s final paragraph lays out the political dilemma that I named Chapter Nine of my book after: “The U.S.-China Suicide Pact on Climate.”

But Claussen’s first quote is a bombshell — completely untenable from a policy or scientific perspective, assuming she means to include China in “developing nations.” And if she meant binding targets for the developing nations are out of the question at Copenhagen this year, then Chameides needs to say so. Indeed, as written, the quote really makes no sense since it gives no timeframe whatsoever, suggesting that developing countries could never agree to binding targets, which is patently fatal to human civilization.

Dr. Chameides: I do not grok Claussen’s quote — literally!

From a scientific perspective and a climate policy perspective, one can make a some strong and unequivocal statements. From a scientific perspective, we have no chance to stabilize CO2 concentrations anywhere near 450 ppm (let alone 350), if China does not agree to cap its carbon emissions by 2020 (see “Must-read IEA report explains what must be done to avoid 6°C warming“). Indeed, China must agree to a CO2 cap by 2020 that is not at levels that represent simply a continuation of their CO2 growth rate in the first part of this decade (see “China announces plan to single-handedly finish off the climate“).

Every single major international policymaker — and China’s leaders — must come to understand that and quickly.
Yes, the United States and the rich countries are responsible for the vast majority of cumulative emissions and must agree to reduce their CO2 emissions by 80% to 90% by 2050, with real cuts starting no later than 2020. But all that action would be utterly vitiated by China’s inaction.

Brazil and Indonesia don’t need binding targets anytime soon so much as they need a global deal to generate enough funding to stop their deforestation. And India may eventually catch up to China’s rapacious pace of emissions growth and will eventually need a binding target.

But nobody could have imagined China’s staggering rate of growth in coal use and CO2 emissions this decade. That growth makes China nothing like traditional developing countries like South Africa or Kenya — and it must be treated differently if humanity is to avoid self-destruction. As I wrote in Salon (click here):

China is in a special category by itself. It has announced plans to spend more than half a trillion dollars on an economic stimulus and infrastructure plan. It is a hyper-developing country, with vast amounts of capital in key advanced technologies, including wind and solar.

As a matter of U.S. politics, if China won’t agree to some sort of a binding target, then there is zero chance of getting 67 votes in the U.S. Senate for a global treaty — and little chance of even getting 51 votes (see “Should Obama push a climate bill in 2009 or 2010? Part I, Does a serious bill need action from China?“).

I also think it is rather obvious that if China simply refuses to agree to any strong emissions constraint sometime during Obama’s (hopefully) two terms in office, than even assuming we do pass a domestic climate bill in the next year, the political support for the kind of carbon dioxide prices needed to achieve meaningful reductions by 2020 would just fade away.

I do not want to be misunderstood here: It is more than reasonable to argue, as I have repeatedly, that the US should work hard to pass a bill first — and such a bill may be the key to unlocking Chinese action. But whether or not Obama needs some action by China to get a U.S. bill passed, his entire presidency and the fate of the planet rest on whether he can in fact get a China deal (see “What will make Obama a great president, Part 2: A climate deal with China“). Absent a binding Chinese target, you can plan to buy beachfront property in Baton Rouge.

So I think Claussen and/or Chameides need to clarify what she said and what she meant.

As an aside, the comments of Lorents Lorentsen, Chief, Environment Directorate, OECD are a tad worrying. Is he seriously thinking that humanity can tolerate 650 ppm? And does he really believe that it is even possible to stabilize at 650 ppm — that such warming won’t destroy much of the tundra and lead to amplifying carbon cycle feedbacks that quickly take us to 1000 ppm? If so, he should read “An introduction to global warming impacts: Hell and High Water.”

Note to Lorents: It is 350 to 450 ppm — or bust!

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13 Responses to Does the Pew Center’s Eileen Claussen get the dire nature of our climate predicament — or did Duke’s Bill Chameides misquote her

  1. jorleh says:

    Where is your new book, Joe? You must make a new book. Just collect your articles in this blog. Why not, man?

    Yes, we are late. China is going to take us into Hell, and all other countries contributing in this mission, of cource, too.

  2. I support Claussen statement. The focus is on the DEVELOPPED nations, not the developping ones. The ethical rule is the per capita CO2 emissions. We, developped nations, have to cut by 80 or 90%: let us start NOW!. This is a huge move and we need a very strong price signal (and a carbon tax).
    Then the developping nations will see our efforts and achievements to curb our CO2 emissions. They are also directly concerned by the climate disasters (droughts, floodings, …) and they also will act then.
    It would be a huge mistake to focus on China or India; they have a lot of reasons not getting involved in the Copenhague agreement, but their people will ask their government; why aren’t we involved in this action because global warming worry us a lot? And then they will get commited, even if the ethical indicator, the CO2 emission per capita is not met.
    All this is described in the Contraction and Convergence scenario: Joe, why don’t you open an article about it?

  3. john says:

    Jean, you missed the point — we need action on all fronts now. If you want contraction and convergence both need to start now. This isn’t about making a deal; or not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. It’s about scientific reality. We are at or near tipping points that make warming catastrophic and irreversible. So every party needs to cut GHG, now. And to see the head of the Pew Climate Center either not understand the science, or ignore it is very discouraging.

  4. john says:

    Wait, what I meant is that if you want contraction and convergence you should have started before now.

  5. John, I think I prefer your 2nd statement.
    My point is that we, developped countries, cannot delay our CO2 cuts on the ground that China or India doesnt want to commit itself. Considering we emit 3 or 5 times the average CO2 per capita of these countries, we have the imperative duty to cut this number.
    If USA wants to lead, and the same for Europe, we have to lead by the example, and then we will see the other countries with us.

  6. ecostew says:

    I think more like7-8 times more per capita.

  7. Modesty says:


    The policy gamble stuff you’ve posted on, from the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, implicitly suggests a 670 CO2_eq target, and gets away with this by (1) looking at warming by 2100 (not equilibrium warming) as well as (2) looking at warming from now on, not from the pre-industrial.

    Just look at the chart (again). Look what a good chance it seems to be suggesting its policy target has of “meeting the 2 degree target.”

    This confuses matters and ends up loosely (and inaccurately) conveying the message that this target, this policy goal, offers us a fair chance of staying below a “2 degree target.” (That is, gives us a fair chance of the temperature not having increased more than 2 degrees (from current levels) by the end of the century.)

    This relies on equivocation (and, of course. on ignoring the risk of triggering feedbacks, but that’s a separate point).

    That’s why, in the comments to your recent Friedman post, I called for pie charts as pretty as the MIT charts, but showing what the true gamble looks like, ie the likelihoods for equilibrium warming over the pre-industrial for this policy of targeting 670 ppm CO2_eq. That chart will not suggest 670 CO2_eq has anything to do with a 2 degree target.

    Once this has been cleared up, your point about feedbacks should be made as a kind of final thrust. But the more basic stuff needs to be sorted out first, or else the MIT work cannot help but confuse matters and encourage people to bandy about these ppm:s in the six hundreds.

  8. Joe – I am the guy from TheGreenGrok who posted the quote about Claussen. I don’t think I got her statement wrong, but you can judge for yourself by going to and seeing and listening to her actual remarks. The specific quote I referred to appears at 19:15 and to be more accurate was: “Binding emissions targets for the developing nations are out of the question.” Bombshell or not, I would not discount Claussen’s comments including her take on what it implies for a global treaty – for more on that check out her response near the end when I pressed her about binding targets for developing nations.

  9. Jeff R. says:

    Joe, you wrote:
    “As a matter of U.S. politics, if China won’t agree to some sort of a binding target, then there is _zero chance of getting 67 votes_ in the U.S. Senate for a global treaty…”

    Eileen Claussen’s quote, probably in the context of Copenhagen as you suggested, is far LESS outrageous than your presumption. If we can’t convince 20 or 25 rich country government representatives (currently on the fence) to make the first leap of good faith in what will be a multi-decade tit-for-tat iterative game, then civilization is doomed.

    And of course we CAN convince them. Keep up the good work and give us more ammunition with which we can go after these Senators.

  10. John McCormick says:


    You said: [whether or not Obama needs some action by China to get a U.S. bill passed, his entire presidency and the fate of the planet rest on whether he can in fact get a China deal ]

    The fundamental point there is getting a US bill passed… (EPA cannot regulate CO2 using the CAA. Congress must give statutory power to an agency to regulate CO2).

    The Congress will not pass a bill without agreement by China to join the US to achieve a scheduled, huge reduction of CO2 emissions.

    If the Congress goes ahead unilaterally, we have lost any leverage we had with our largest creditor.

    On the other hand, Chinese officials and scientists understand the threat global warming poses to China’s long-term future…string with measurement of Himalayan glacier melt back. China does not have the internal wealth to weather climate change as long as the US will. China can be persuaded to enter a joint agreement with the US but that can only be achieved if the President will convene a top level, multi-agency and departmental negotiation with Chinese counterparts over several years. I mean negotiate at a level and with determination as if it was a nuclear weapons treaty issue we had to resolve with China.

    The Democrats, in the House and Senate, are doing what must be done to keep public attention focused on climate change and particularly in this agonizing economic time with unemployment jumping half a percentage point each month. But, it does not have to act to bring a bill to the President in the absence of China’s buying in to the reduction plan.

    We can wait China out before or after we act but we can also catch China at a moment of its own realization that the impact will be greater upon Chinese citizens than Americans in the long term….eventually it catches all of us.

    Business practices and trade laws, in China, do not benefit foreign companies. In fact, they discourage large foreign investments. Brookings and others have documented these impediments to foreign cooperation via contracts with China’s energy sector. Those barriers can be negotiated first and when China can come to a mutual agreement with the US through hard nose, bi-lateral negotiations we will have a bill before the US Congress that will get the support form both parties.

    John McCormick

  11. thingsbreak says:

    I remember it sounding like she was talking about Copenhagen at the time. I live-twittered some of her remarks which seem now to support that interpretation…

  12. john says:


    I completely agree that we developed nations must lead — where we differ is that the science demands that the world act collectively and right now. So we must lead in a way that gets developing nations to agree to caps now. It might be inequitable, it could be unjust, and it certainly isn’t the easiest deal to strike.

    But it is the only one which will avoid an irrevocable hell on earth.

    And that’s why I disagree with Ms. Clawsen, if she meant what she said.

    So basically, we need to find a way to help them develop with clean energy — not impossible, and that’s the price we developed nations pay for past pollution.

    We also need something punitive for those who won’t sing a treaty — my favorite is a global carbon tariff for non-signatories.

  13. JeandeBegles says:

    I get your point: we must act collectivly, you are right.
    But you are speaking about cap, and there we differ. I support a carbon tax, the first reason being I dont understand how you can cap the fuel use of every company or every citizen.
    If you want to improve your french you can visit the web site of our citizen association Taca:
    All your remarks will be welcome.