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From COP26: Pete Buttigieg describes how transportation factors into climate goals

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

And I'm Ari Shapiro in Glasgow at the U.N. climate summit, which is inching towards its conclusion. Negotiators here have released a rough draft of an agreement on how countries will aim to avoid the worst climate disasters. The document urges world leaders to set more ambitious plans to cut emissions by the end of next year. The draft is being criticized for what it does not say on transparency and financing for developing countries. Activists gathered just outside the meeting rooms in the path of delegates today, chanting and demanding that leading countries do more.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Fossil fuels going to pay for it now. Stand up. Crank out (ph). Fossil fuels going to pay for it now. Stand up.

SHAPIRO: These are some of the same points the U.S. has been criticized for during this conference. The Biden administration is keeping a marquee presence at COP26, with top cabinet officials coming through. And Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg is here today. Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, and welcome to Scotland.

PETE BUTTIGIEG: Thank you. It's good to be here.

SHAPIRO: I think some listeners in the U.S. might wonder why the transportation secretary is at an international climate conference. I know you said every transportation decision is a climate decision, but can you explain the nexus between your role and the global effort to keep temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius?

BUTTIGIEG: Well, in the U.S., transportation is the single biggest sector of the economy contributing greenhouse gases, which means we have an obligation to be one of the biggest parts of the solution. And transportation by its very nature, just like climate, is a globally connected phenomenon. And so it's very important for us to be with our counterparts and with our colleagues recognizing that no one country can do it alone, and also recognizing that the world can't do it without the United States. It's been really encouraging to see how warmly I've been received and how warmly I think the U.S. is being received by a lot of countries that really missed us these last few years and recognize the importance of the U.S. not just being around but being in a leadership position.

SHAPIRO: And yet I've also heard a lot of people here question whether the U.S. is going to be able to back up its words with actions. I mean, the infrastructure bill alone does not get the U.S. close to the international goal. And even if the social spending bill passes, the climate provisions in it no longer include any penalties for emitters. And so when you meet top officials from other countries here, how do you persuade them that the U.S. will step up and do its part to meet the international goal when Congress has not shown that it can even take the steps laid out in the president's Build Back Better plan?

BUTTIGIEG: Well, first, I can point to the things that are in our infrastructure legislation, including provisions to support electric vehicles at a time when we need to rapidly accelerate the adoption of EVs. The president has set a very ambitious goal - 50% percent of all new cars in the country being zero-emission by the end of the decade. Let me also point out that the rest of the - what I call the big deal, the president's Build Back Better agenda - that would set us up to, by a factor of 10 times, do more investments on conquering the climate challenge than we've ever done at the federal level. So it's not about who wins this or that election. It's about a trajectory for the United States that is also one creating jobs.

SHAPIRO: I want to ask you in a moment about who wins elections because that is important to the future of climate in the U.S. But I've been talking to a lot of activists and academics here about how the U.S. is perceived, and almost every U.S. official who's spoken here has said some version of America is back. I asked a 22-year-old activist from Malaysia named Hailey Tan what she hears when she hears American officials say that, and here's what she told me.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HAILEY TAN: I hear lies, and I hear broken promises. On one hand, you're saying that you're doing the best that you can to mitigate climate crisis, but on the other hand, you're still actively funding fossil fuel and at the expense of the global south. And we need that to stop immediately.

SHAPIRO: How do you respond?

BUTTIGIEG: Well, I think that she has higher expectations, and rightly so. You know, it's not enough for us to just show up at a conference. We do need to back that up with action, not only on the surface side with things like vehicles, but working towards figure out how to make aircraft sustainable and ultimately zero-emission. But, of course, it is not going to be overnight when literally our entire political and economic layout over the last hundred years was built on certain terms. The race is on to make sure that we do make those changes in time.

SHAPIRO: The world is aware that every four years, the balance of power can change in Washington. And the Republican Party is not interested in taking the kinds of ambitious steps that are necessary to prevent catastrophe. So even if the words of the U.S. do match the actions, how do you convince the international community that the U.S. not only is but will continue to be a reliable partner?

BUTTIGIEG: Well, that's one of the reasons why it's so important that there's the private sector participation that you see here. This is not just about making sure that we...

SHAPIRO: That sounds like a concession that perhaps the government will not continue to be a reliable partner, that - at least the private sector is there.

BUTTIGIEG: Well, no. I think what I'm getting at is that government will respond to the economic change we are making. In other words, we're not just benefiting the climate; we're creating climate jobs. And if somebody seeks to attack that, they're attacking American jobs, they're attacking American workers and they're attacking American businesses that are already leading in this direction. That's why I think even though the U.S. has been late to do this, climate will have to become a bipartisan project.

And one of the things that's really striking here among my counterparts is that I talked to a lot of officials who are considered conservative politicians in their countries. But the debate in those countries is between the right and the left over how best to get to net-zero. That's what we need in the U.S. We need to get to the point where the debate is between our approach in this administration and the other side on how to meet the goals, not whether to meet the goals. I'm still waiting for the Green Republican Deal. But in the meantime, we need to demonstrate that the economic opportunities that we're creating as we speak mean that there is no going back, whatever happens from election to election.

SHAPIRO: When you look at Republican support for the climate provisions that President Biden is pushing, it doesn't seem like there's any progress towards the bipartisan consensus you're describing.

BUTTIGIEG: Which is exactly why we're going to need to continue moving forward as a society - the public, the private academic sectors together, again, including industry and including workers - and then challenge those politicians who aren't there yet to catch up.

SHAPIRO: Many activists at this conference are bringing up climate justice as it relates to the global south, and climate justice is also a major issue for communities in the U.S. As you know, people of color have been disproportionately hit by pollution, toxic waste and other environmental hazards. And so as the U.S. makes promises to help international communities that have been harmed by our country's choices, what promises can you make to Black and brown communities in the U.S. that have also been disproportionately hit by pollution and racist policies?

BUTTIGIEG: Well, this adds even more to the moral stakes of confronting the climate challenge. Let me give you just one example. The infrastructure bill contains resources for cleaning up our ports, electrifying our ports and a healthy ports initiative. Part of why that's important is at this moment, where we're trying to push more goods than ever through our ports, we have to recognize that the families and households that live near them are disproportionately Latino and Black and have disproportionate levels of health effects due to air pollution.

Let me also talk about the upside. You know, the president is committed to the Justice40 concept. That means 40% of the green investments in these bills have to be done at least 40% in a way that is benefiting communities that have been underserved and overburdened. And to me, that means not only making sure, for example, that we have transit serving communities of color, making sure that we are investing in communities that have been left out in the past, but also making sure that the business opportunities and labor opportunities that will come with these massive investments go to workers and businesses led by those who have been left out in the past.

SHAPIRO: Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, thank you for speaking with us here in Glasgow.

BUTTIGIEG: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.