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Obama trying to bridge global divide on climate

  • President Obama is flying to Copenhagen for final stage of climate talks
  • Fareed Zakaria thinks trip can show developing world the seriousness of issue
  • He says India, China need abundant, cheap energy to lift hundreds of millions out of poverty
  • Zakaria says cheaper, technological solutions also need to be explored

Editor's note: Fareed Zakaria is an author and foreign affairs analyst who hosts "Fareed Zakaria GPS" on CNN on Sundays at 1 and 5 p.m. ET.

New York (CNN) -- President Obama took a risk by heading to Copenhagen Thursday to take part in the final stage of the U.N. Climate Conference with no firm assurance of an agreement -- but the trip is worth the effort, according to Fareed Zakaria, CNN foreign affairs analyst.

The conference has been hampered by tension between developed nations including the United States, and nations such as China and India, whose developing economies are reliant on carbon-intensive energy.

"It's important to get the Indians and the Chinese to take this seriously and agree on common goals," Zakaria said. "There's no better way to impress on them the seriousness of the issue than for Obama to go to the conference.

"That's leadership," he said. "You've got to take these risks. If it was worth going to pitch the Chicago Olympics, it was surely worth doing this." Obama traveled to Copenhagen in October to support Chicago, Illinois', bid for the 2016 Olympics, but the games were awarded to Rio de Janiero, Brazil.

Talks foundered Wednesday when China rejected a U.S. push that nations be required to demonstrate that they're fulfilling a commitment to cut emissions of greenhouse gases.

After arriving in Copenhagen, Obama said Friday that time was running out to reach agreement. "There is no time to waste," the president said. "Now I believe it's the time for the nations and the people of the world to come behind a common purpose. We are ready to get this done today, but there has to be movement on all sides."

Zakaria, author and host of CNN's "Fareed Zakaria: GPS," spoke to CNN Thursday about the climate conference.

CNN: What's at stake in the closing hours of the climate talks in Copenhagen?

Fareed Zakaria: The most important thing we should be looking for is to see some kind of common understanding between the industrial world and the developing world. There is just a fundamental structural difference between the way the West sees the problem and the way the Indias and Chinas of the world see the problem.

For India and China, the most urgent reality they face is still mass poverty. In India, 800 million people live on less than $3 a day. From their point of view, they have to get these people out of poverty. To do so, they're going to have to use lots of energy.

The cheapest and most available form of energy is coal -- it is also the dirtiest. India and China will build one coal-fired power plant every week for the next 10 years. The emissions from those plants are five to seven times greater than the total savings of carbon dioxide emissions from all the various Kyoto- and Copenhagen-like plans the West can achieve.

Unless you find a way to make the Chinese and the Indians understand that they need to play, what we do in the West is frankly irrelevant.

CNN: How significant is it that the United States has committed to help lead an effort to provide $100 billion to developing nations to assist in battling climate change?

Zakaria: I think it is going to make a difference. These other countries have been waiting to see if there is a commitment. They're not willing to suffer economically in order to grow green. They don't feel they're rich enough to afford this. ...

A fund like that would begin to provide incentives for green energy in India and China, which is where it really matters.

CNN: Should China be a leader in trying to do more to combat the problem?

Zakaria: Maybe in an ideal world it should, but they're still a developing country. On a per capita basis, the Chinese are not even a tenth as rich as Americans. Their view is that the vast majority of CO² [carbon dioxide] in the atmosphere was put up by the western world. They feel they need to put as much CO² into the air in order to get rich, and now we're saying to them "You need to be responsible." They view this as an effort to enjoy all the benefits we want and now ask them to start paying the costs. I do think they should be more active, but one has to keep in mind their perception of it.

CNN: You've said that you're skeptical of scientists' ability to fully predict the impact of human activity on a complex system such as the world's climate?

Zakaria: I just think the reality is that we're talking about one of the most complicated scientific models in the world and the effects various things have on it. When you get into the prediction business of what temperatures are going to be like 20, 30, 40, 50, 60 years from now, the uncertainty is large. Of course, it could turn out to be much worse than predicted. ...

I still think we should do something to slow down our CO² emissions, but I tend to believe we're going to have to also find significant technological solutions to this problem. On our program next Sunday, Nathan Myhrvold, former chief technology officer of Microsoft and a very accomplished scientist ... talks about one of the things he's been working on. We know for a fact that when volcanoes erupt, they spew sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere and that can cool the earth for a year. So he's is looking into pumps which may have that effect. Other people talk about reflectors and building cheap dams to withstand a small rise in sea levels.

Reducing carbon emissions is very important too but it requires the whole world to come on board, and India and China to do things that are very dramatic. We should also try other approaches that could be much cheaper, can be modeled, and can be tested.

Sometimes the debate on global warming is too restrictive -- if we can't get a carbon tax or cap and trade, we'll throw up our hands, and let climate do what it will. ... The simple cheap solutions would not require the same kind of wrenching changes.

CNN: Can the president really make climate change commitments for the United States given that Congress has yet to pass his cap and trade legislation?

Zakaria: It certainly doesn't help. Climate change and energy issues in general are unusual in that they are at some level foreign policy issues, but they're also fundamentally domestic policy issues. That means, according to the U.S. Constitution, they lie mostly in Congress' purview. ... The fact that Congress is far away from Obama's view does weaken his hand.