United Nations climate talks in limbo
By: Darren Samuelsohn
For eight years, the world waited for a U.S. president to help stop global warming and save the planet.
So far, Barack Obama hasn't lived up to the job.
Cap-and-trade legislation Obama promised two years ago on the campaign trail is dead and buried, and his administration is attempting to regulate carbon dioxide emissions and cover billions of dollars in pledges without majority support in Congress.
Internationally, heading into the U.N.-led climate talks in Cancun, Mexico, next week, prospects for a multitrillion-dollar transocean carbon market are in tatters and a new binding treaty to succeed the Kyoto Protocol remains years away.
Obama won't be going to Mexico for the conference that starts Nov. 29, and neither will Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi or many of the other members of Congress who went to ice-cold Copenhagen for last year's U.N. negotiations.
The State Department's Todd Stern will be the face of the Obama administration during the two-week meeting that starts Nov. 29. His job is to sell Plan B: A suite of Environmental Protection Agency climate regulations and billions of dollars in renewable energy stimulus bill spending that the White House says would curb domestic emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020.
“People respect that the president wants to do this," Stern told reporters last week after preliminary negotiations in Arlington, Va. "It’s night and day as compared to the previous administration. But having said that, no question we’d have been in a markedly stronger position had we gotten our domestic legislation done.”
The outsize expectations for Obama on climate change came in no small part because of how George W. Bush handled the climate issue. For eight years, Bush battled Democrats, environmentalists and much of the rest of the world by resisting calls to cap greenhouse gas emissions.
On the international stage, foreign diplomats often tagged the United States as an enemy. At a 2007 meeting in Bali, Indonesia, officials from Europe, South Africa and Papua New Guinea blasted Bush officials and prompted the entire conference to boo them. Former Vice President Al Gore pleaded with negotiators to "save a large, open blank space" for the next president.
But by the much-anticipated Copenhagen conference in December, Obama still didn't have a climate law in hand, forcing him and 120 other leaders to skirt the sort of treaty deal many had envisioned when he was sworn into office.
"The expectations for Copenhagen were unrealistic," U.N. climate chief Christiana Figueres said last week. "It's not possible to come to one agreement that's going to magically solve every problem that we have on climate change, which was, unfortunately, the expectation that was up there in the air."
Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), co-author of several unsuccessful cap-and-trade bills over the past decade, suggested an under-the-radar approach could yield results.
"Perhaps what Copenhagen has contributed to this moment, pre-Cancun, is low expectations," Lieberman said. "As a result, we may be surprised by what happens."
Much of Washington seems oblivious to Cancun. Several top Democrats who normally are in the middle of the international climate debate were unprepared last week for questions about the next stage of the U.N. process, including Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer and House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman.
Republicans, meanwhile, are gloating at the current state of the international process and relishing the opportunity to undo even more of Obama's domestic climate agenda next year.
"What are you going to do in Cancun other than go swimming?" said Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe, an outspoken climate science skeptic who spent about three hours in Copenhagen last December.
"It's amazing how little buzz there is about that meeting," said Nebraska Rep. Lee Terry, a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. "I just hear nobody talking about it. Like Copenhagen, that was a big deal. And so I just think the expectations are so low of Cancun that no one is really looking toward it."
In Copenhagen, closed-door negotiations between the United States, China, India, Brazil and South Africa produced the "Copenhagen Accord" — a nonbinding document that allows countries to make their own emission reduction and financial pledges. The voluntary agreement looked like something dreamed up by Bush officials on steroids, although the U.S. for the first time committed to significant reductions on its own, leading some of the world's emerging economic powerhouses to follow suit.
Next week in Cancun, diplomats will be trying to iron out the Copenhagen Accord's fine print, such as determining how to measure the reliability of countries' different environmental offers and the makeup of multibillion-dollar funds designed to help poor nations deploy low-carbon energy technologies and also cope with rising seas, heat waves, floods and droughts.
Even without being there, the White House could face some critical moments in Cancun.
The two biggest players in the room — the U.S. and China — continue to test each other's limits over how to monitor a country's emission pledges, and how that should be tied to access to billions of dollars in foreign aid.
Also tricky is where the U.S. will find its share of a $30 billion short-term commitment it made in Copenhagen for developing countries, as well as a $100 billion long-term promise. Clinton made those pledges with the hope an emissions auction would help generate the funds.
Figueres, a former top Costa Rican diplomat, said she's not concerned about Obama’s inability to get a climate bill signed into law. "The expectation of everyone is the United States will comply with its 17 percent" target, she said. "How they do it is completely a domestic affair."
Obama is expected to address the Cancun negotiations before the talks begin and several observers say he could hit the phones with other world leaders during the negotiations if the situation warrants, much like Bill Clinton did in the closing hours of the 1997 Kyoto summit.
But long-term prospects for the U.N. negotiations are in peril given the difficulties any White House occupant would face trying to get a binding climate treaty ratified by the Senate. Current struggles surrounding everything from nuclear arms reduction to trade don’t have many U.S. observers feeling optimistic.
"I don't know if we can pass dogcatcher appreciation day anymore," said Michael Levi, senior energy and environment fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "I think it's problematic."
Consensus seems to be emerging that the talks will continue beyond the end-of-the-year 2011 summit scheduled for South Africa. Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, suggested the U.N. climate process itself is on "probation."
Climate diplomats and veterans of the process have suggested a shift toward the Group of 20 nations and other bilateral and multilateral venues. Critics argue that such a move would leave out of the process many of the poor and island countries most vulnerable to global warming and who have no other forum to be heard.
Stern said that while Cancun won't be the make-or-break moment for the U.N.-led effort, people should certainly be on notice that they don't have much longer to wait.
"I wouldn't say it's a referendum," Stern said. "But I would say if the process can't make any progress this year, can't make any progress next year, there's going to be a point at which it's not going to work."