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White House climate advisor addresses the unresolved questions left after COP27

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

What is the U.S. role in addressing climate change? At this year's U.N. climate conference, known as COP 27, President Biden attempted to reclaim a leadership role, and he apologized for his predecessor's pullout from the Paris Agreement.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: This gathering must be the moment to recommit our future and our shared capacity to write a better story for the world. Let's build on our global climate progress, raising both our ambitions and the speed of our efforts.

KELLY: But with the conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, now wrapping up, the question of U.S. responsibility was - still is - at issue. The countries most impacted by things like extreme heat, flooding, sea level rise - they want rich countries like the U.S. to commit to pay for damages. For more on that, we turn to national climate adviser to President Biden, Ali Zaidi. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

ALI ZAIDI: Thanks for having me on.

KELLY: Let's start with this idea of richer countries - which, of course, have contributed the most to climate change - and compensating developing countries for losses and damages they have incurred. The U.S. has said this is a great idea. We support this. But the U.S. has not come out and backed the creation of an actual pot of money to do that. Why not?

ZAIDI: You know, from Day 1 of this administration, when the president signed us back into the Paris Agreement, he came in with a very clear conviction that major economies must drive major emissions reductions. That's exactly the policy he's pursued here domestically. We're now on a path to get 50 to 52% emissions reductions by 2030. Now, at the same time, we've got to recognize that we've unleashed some of the impacts of a changing climate. And the way we tackle that has got to be together. We've got to be in partnership, in solidarity with folks all around the world. And that's why the president has been very clear.

KELLY: Well - and I hear you using the words partnership and solidarity. And I'm thinking, if I were from a country like, say, Pakistan that is drowning through no fault of their own - they say the U.S. keeps talking, keeps throwing these big numbers out there. But is that just kind of kicking the can down the road? What would you say to that?

ZAIDI: Yeah. As someone who was actually born in Karachi, Pakistan, I totally hear what you're saying. And one of the things that I think animates the entirety of the president's climate agenda is a focus on delivering results. That's why he's launched the Prepare Initiative, which is working to help half a billion people in developing countries respond to climate - he's deposited money, the first installment, into an adaptation fund that's designed to do just this sort of work, help broaden...

KELLY: But he's not - forgive me for jumping in. But, again, just back to this question of - if the U.S. thinks it's a great idea to set up a fund for losses and damages, why won't the U.S. just come out and say that and put its money where its mouth is?

ZAIDI: I think the United States has been clear that it's important for us to be a partner in supporting countries around the world, tackle the impacts of climate that have already been unleashed, that resources need to be mobilized to that end. That's why we have invested in things like the Adaptation Fund and why our Development Finance Corporation deployed $2.3 billion on climate for developing countries in just the last year. So it's a commitment. It is a recognition of the challenge. And we're fully leaned in to bringing that to bear.

KELLY: Can you put a number on how much money the U.S. is willing to offer for losses and damages?

ZAIDI: The president has been clear about the amount of capital we need to mobilize on climate finance - broadly, $11 billion by 2024 on an annual basis. And within that, he is focused on including 3 billion specifically on adaptation.

KELLY: Just one more on the question of loss and damage finance because I do want to note that the U.S. allowed that to be added to the meeting's agenda for the first time but also demanded a footnote excluding the ideas of liability for historic emitters such as the U.S. or compensation for countries affected by that pollution. To those who look at that, to what actually has just unfolded in Sharm el-Sheikh and say, I don't know; I wonder how earnest the U.S. commitment is to loss and damage compensation, what would you say?

ZAIDI: I think the United States recognizes that we are in the decisive decade for climate action. That's something that's stipulated by the science. It's being witnessed in our communities not here but all around the world. And the president's response has been strong. It's been unambiguous. And he's delivering results. As a major emitter and a major economy, we are on track now to drive down our emissions 50 to 52% by 2030. The U.S. is back at the table. And I think louder than words are the actions that we're taking. And the president is driving us forward on bold, ambitious climate action.

KELLY: But what about India? What about China, both of them major greenhouse gas emitters? Their leaders both skipped the conference. What's their responsibility here?

ZAIDI: I think we're seeing the president galvanize action across the world, most recently with a global MOU that we just signed into on heavy duty trucks moving to zero emissions. We're excited about the progress that we're making. And it didn't happen by accident. It happened because the president of United States decided not only are we signing back into the Paris Agreement; America is going to help us lead.

KELLY: Big picture, you're just back from Sharm el-Sheikh. You were there at the conference with the president. It's your job, as people are gathering, to be optimistic and search for solutions here. But you will be aware of some of the very bleak headlines coming out of the conference. The lead of my NPR colleague Nate Rott's story today from Sharm el-Sheikh reads - and I quote - "global climate talks in Egypt are entering their final stretch. And so far, delegates have made little progress on the biggest climate questions facing humanity." Ali Zaidi, is he right?

ZAIDI: Here's the way I look at it. I remember flying to Paris for the climate negotiations in 2015. And at that time, the world was looking at temperature rise five, six degrees, maybe more. I remember walking through the gates of the White House when President Biden took office, and the world was looking at a temperature rise of three degrees, maybe more. Now we're looking at something below two degrees. I think that's a really hopeful story. I know folks like to write climate change as a story of gloom and doom. I think it's a story of hope and opportunity. And I think Joe Biden sees that and is tapping into that power and that potential in accelerating us forward.

KELLY: That is national climate advisor to President Biden Ali Zaidi, just back from a big conference in Sharm el-Sheikh. Thank you so much.

ZAIDI: Thank you - appreciate it.

(SOUNDBITE OF FUGEES SONG, "READY OR NOT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lauren Hodges is an associate producer for All Things Considered. She joined the show in 2018 after seven years in the NPR newsroom as a producer and editor. She doesn't mind that you used her pens, she just likes them a certain way and asks that you put them back the way you found them, thanks. Despite years working on interviews with notable politicians, public figures, and celebrities for NPR, Hodges completely lost her cool when she heard RuPaul's voice and was told to sit quietly in a corner during the rest of the interview. She promises to do better next time.
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.