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Science & Environment

International Leaders To Discuss Substances That Cause Global Warming


And now for a story of unintended consequences. In the 1980s, the world agreed to an international treaty to protect the ozone layer. Problem is, countries replaced ozone-depleting substances with something called hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs. HFCs don't eat up the ozone layer, but they do warm up the atmosphere. They are in air-conditioners, refrigerators, soda vending machines. So now, the world is trying to replace HFCs with something safer. Gina McCarthy is head of the Environmental Protection Agency, and next week, she'll be in Dubai to try to get an international agreement on this issue. Welcome to the show.

GINA MCCARTHY: It's nice to be here, Ari. Thank for having me.

SHAPIRO: How big a deal are HFCs? How much of a problem are they when we look at global warming?

MCCARTHY: Well, they're a pretty big part of the problem at this point. And they're going to be increasingly a bigger part of the pie. You know, we find that HFCs are, at times, thousands of times more potent than carbon dioxide, which means their warming potential is very high. We also find that they're growing at a faster pace - between 15 and 20 percent every year - so that by the end of this century, they themselves could account for one-half of a degree Celsius increase in temperature. So they're a problem now, but they're a growing problem. And it's one of the areas in which we think we have a strong opportunity to do something about it today.

SHAPIRO: This meeting in Dubai is a precursor to much bigger, arguably more important meeting in Paris in early December, where the world's countries are going to try to limit climate change. Do you think success in Dubai will signal success in Paris or failure in Dubai would signal failure in Paris?

MCCARTHY: No, I don't think it's that significant. But I do think it's an opportunity for us to continue to work together and send a signal to all of our countries that we have a way forward to address climate change one issue at a time. And I expect we'll make progress, but Paris, in and of itself, is teed-up, I think, to be a very successful meeting already. If you're looking at what's happening and what's been reported, we've got 146 parties that represent 85 percent of the global emissions that have already submitted commitments or targets. And those targets are actually going to get us a significant step forward to address the kind of warming that scientists tell us is necessary in order to protect the safety and health of this planet.

SHAPIRO: Looking ahead to Paris, just this morning, the UN's climate chief said the commitments that countries have made so far to cut greenhouse gas emissions will not keep global warming below that all-important 2 degree threshold, where scientists say, if we break 2 degrees warming, life will change as we know it. The UN this morning said we're looking at something like 2.7, perhaps 3 degrees. Do worry that, at this point, even before the negotiations in Paris are underway, it looks like success is not within reach?

MCCARTHY: No, I really don't worry about that, and let me explain to you why. What I worry about is no action. What I worry about is no international commitment. We're looking for every country to really make targets here. And we're looking for opportunities to continue to finance the most vulnerable countries moving forward. But frankly, Ari, I think the frustration has been that you can't get from zero to 60 right away. You've got to get running. And I think that's what you'll see here, is we'll make significant progress moving forward. And as a result, all of the signals you want about where the jobs are going to go, where the market is going to head is going to spark innovation and allow those next steps to happen in a way that everybody can foresee is beneficial to them, not just in terms of their environment and the economy, but in terms of how to keep their kids safe and healthy.

SHAPIRO: Something I hear a lot when I talk to climate change experts, politicians, policymakers is, well, we didn't exactly meet our goals, but we've made progress, or we're starting to innovate, or at least we're all on the same page. And meanwhile, forest fires burn hotter and more frequently, storms are more intense, droughts last longer. And I think it seems, to a lot of people, like the bar is consistently lowered while climate change and the effects of it keep getting worse and worse and worse.

MCCARTHY: Well, I think my response to that would be that the sooner we can get any carbon reductions, the better off we know the planet is. And the most important thing is that we don't set the bar so high that nobody feels that they can achieve it. But I think a lot of it is really recognizing that the world has changed. Ari, if you think about what the world looked like 15 or 20 years ago, you wouldn't have predicted where we were today. So I think it's wrongheaded to think that if we can't figure out all the strategies 20 years from now that we should not make progress over the next 10 or 15. That's just not going to get us anywhere fast.

SHAPIRO: Gina McCarthy is administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. Thank you very much for speaking with us.

MCCARTHY: Thanks, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.