Divisions Among Wisconsin Delegates to Paris Mirror Climate Strife Back Home

Representatives to U.N. Climate Change summit disagree over conference’s focus, whether outcome should be binding

December 8, 2015

By Chris Rochester & Ola Lisowski
MacIver Institute Communications Director & MacIver Institute Research Associate

[Madison, Wisc…] Five Wisconsin delegates to the 2015 Paris Climate Conference, also known as COP-21, spoke with attendees at a “Live from Paris” teleconference on the UW-Madison campus last week.

The panel included representatives from the private sector, healthcare, law, and academia:

  • Jeff Thompson, CEO emeritus of La Crosse-based Gundersen Health System;
  • Jonathan Patz, director of UW-Madison’s Global Health Institute;
  • Sumudu Atapattu, director of the UW-Madison Law School Research Centers;
  • Clay Nesler, a sustainability executive at Johnson Controls;
  • Paris Pull Quote.pngNathan Schulfer, an assistant director with the UW-Madison Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies.

All emphasized the need for climate change action, but panelists politely disagreed on several issues, including the need to conclude the talks with a legally binding agreement and what the ultimate focus of the conference should be: technology and innovation or health.

Nesler and Thompson stressed the importance of private companies’ innovation and technology as keys to increasing efficiency and reducing carbon emissions. But one panelist, Patz, disagreed, suggesting emphasizing market-driven innovation was drowning out a focus on health.

Patz wants to use the climate agenda to change peoples’ lifestyle choices, claiming driving cars rather than walking contributes to an unhealthy sedentary lifestyle:

“I think there may be too much focus on technology, because there’s so many simple things as far as conservation and changing of the lifestyles in a positive way…When they’re talking about electric cars in the cities – that’s great, but it sure would be a lot healthier to walk and use efficient public transportation, a bicycle or something like that. I think that’s where that could be a little too much of an over-dependence on technology.”

Patz noted that “Oslo is going to be banning all cars driving in the city in the next 4-5 years…You won’t be able to drive in many parts of the city and they’re really ratcheting up alternative transportation.”

Patz’s total salary in 2013 was more than $186,000 excluding benefits, according to a Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel database.

Panelists said that the focus of the Paris conference has been on wind and solar power as the most attractive alternatives to fossil fuels. One panelist reported seeing teenagers walking around with signs calling for “no coal, no oil, no natural gas, no nukes.”

There was little indication that conference members were including reliable, relatively clean fossil fuels in the week’s conversations. In fact, one panelist said that not a single fossil fuel interest had representation at the conference.

When offered the opportunity to submit questions, the MacIver Institute asked about the role of nuclear energy throughout the conference. Many audience members laughed, and a panelist said there’s “a very strong focus, obviously, on solar and wind” while suggesting at least a nominal “all of the above” approach.

This is despite the fact that France, the host country of the COP-21 talks, derives about 75 percent of its energy from nuclear power, according to the World Nuclear Association. It is the most reliant on nuclear energy of any other country in the world and is the largest electricity exporter in the world, touting cheap energy costs for its citizens.

French President Fran├žois Hollande’s government has announced plans to drop to 50 percent nuclear by 2025.

Another concern splitting the panel was whether or not the resulting accords of the Paris conference should be legally binding. Atapattu said that a successful outcome would a require legally binding document for all involved states. “As a lawyer, obviously for me success would be a binding, legally binding document,” she said.

But Nesler was concerned that legally binding agreements would actually scare some countries away.

“The counterargument to legally binding is that we want every country to be as ambitious as possible and if it’s viewed that there are penalties or other legal obligations, people will probably hold back,” Nesler said.

Atapattu also called for an international legal framework to deal with climate change refugees as indigenous populations are forced to flee rising sea levels and areas rendered uninhabitable by climate change. She also voiced hopes that the resulting document would include language directly referring to “the link between climate, gender, and human rights.”

But if anything legally binding emerges from the COP-21 talks, President Obama will have a difficult time committing the United States. His administration’s Clean Power Plan (CPP) has found little support back home.

In 2010, Obama’s Cap and Trade plan failed to garner enough votes for passage, even though his own party held large majorities in both the Senate and House.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is now attempting to bypass the legislative process by implementing the CPP through the federal rule-making process. Twenty-six states including Wisconsin have joined in multiple lawsuits contesting the new rules.

Wisconsin would be hit especially hard by the CPP.

A MacIver Institute and Beacon Hill study found that the CPP would cost Wisconsinites 21,000 jobs and $1.82 billion in disposable income by 2030. It also found that the CPP would cause the average household electric bill to jump $225 and would cost the average Wisconsin factory an extra $105,094 per month if implemented.

The plan will also increase electricity rates in Wisconsin by up to 29 percent, according to modeling studies by Wisconsin’s Public Service Commission.

The MacIver Institute also asked panelists whether the CPP was part of the Paris discussions. While panelists said the CPP wasn’t a topic, one called it a “bargaining chip” that Congressional Republicans are trying to take away.

The House voted overwhelmingly – 242-180 – this week to block the CPP. The U.S. Senate approved identical bipartisan legislation two weeks ago.

Though the legislation faces a certain presidential veto, it illustrates the dilemma facing delegates to the COP-21 talks amid economic and political realities confronting many world leaders back home.