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Has Obama Given Up on Global Warming Treaty?

5 years ago
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Has President Obama decided that it won't be possible to craft a comprehensive treaty to reduce global warming emissions when the nations of the world gather in Copenhagen in December for what's been billed as a critical climate summit?

After Obama took office, his administration indicated it wanted to lead the way to an international treaty that would bring about worldwide cuts in greenhouse gases and that could be signed at Copenhagen at the end of this year. But the road to Denmark has become full of bumps, potholes and, perhaps, dead ends. The basic dynamic is this: Emerging economic powerhouses (such as China and India) are not eager to cut their emissions and insist that the industrialized nations, which are indeed responsible for most of the global warming pollution now in the atmosphere, should go first, casting an accusatory finger at the United States, the largest emitter. The United States and other Western countries want to get China and India to commit to serious reductions ASAP, for soon they will become the top polluters. But the United States is in a weak position because Congress hasn't yet passed climate-change legislation that would force the United States to reduce its own emissions.

It's hard for Washington to convince Beijing and New Delhi to cut back on emissions if it cannot go on its own diet. And if China and India are not along for the ride, it's also difficult for the White House to coax some senators -- including Democrats -- to back a bill that would mandate domestic reductions. In fact, last week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid declared that the Senate won't get around to voting on a climate-change bill until next year -- that is, after Copenhagen. And White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, in response to a question from me, declined to describe this obvious setback as a setback. (The House passed a strong measure in May.)

Long story short: It's a mess. On Friday afternoon -- as the G20 summit was coming to a close -- I thought I spotted a strong clue that the Obama administration was giving up on forging a tough treaty that ensures serious reductions in global emissions. John Podesta, who was the head of Obama's presidential transition, and Rajendra Pachauri, the chair of the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, released a statement noting that the "world's economic powers remain inactive in preventing an increase in the serious impacts of climate change" and contending that the pre-Copenhagen talks were at an impasse and that the prospect of producing a "coherent" treaty by December "appears grim." Podesta and Pachauri maintained that the G20 nations had to start cooking up alternatives to Copenhagen, such as multilateral pacts to develop low-carbon technology and to finance energy efficiency efforts in developing nations. It appeared as if the pair were essentially saying, forget about reaching a meaningful global treaty at Copenhagen and let's move to a Plan B.

This struck me as a big deal. Podesta is not only close to the Obama administration; he has been the mentor of Todd Stern, the chief U.S. climate negotiator. If Podesta, now the head of Center for American Progress, is this pessimistic about accomplishing a treaty at Copenhagen, it was a good bet that Stern and the Obama administration are, too.

I quickly wrote a piece noting that "it is unlikely -- make that, unimaginable -- that Podesta, an experienced political player in Washington (who was chief of staff for President Clinton), would express such a discouraging position without consulting Stern." I observed that it seemed Podesta, perhaps on behalf of the White House, was lowering expectations for Copenhagen.

Podesta took polite exception, replying that I was a "lousy tealeaf reader" and that I had "incorrectly" concluded that his and Pachauri's "purpose was to downplay expectations on behalf of the Administration." He contended that he and Pachauri "recognize that significant challenges remain" ahead of Copenhagen but were "confident that the international community is poised to make substantial progress on climate change in Copenhagen." He also said their aim was to press G20 nations to "move forward" through "new channels" and pursue "concrete actions prior to Copenhagen."

There's no doubt that Podesta and Pachauri are committed advocates seeking the best ways to redress global warming. And they would know better than anyone what is now possible in Copenhagen. If the odds are indeed long for a global treaty, it's reasonable for them -- and the Obama administration -- to be pondering alternatives. But such a significant shift in aims has not been acknowledged by the White House. Moreover, Plan B may have its problems, as well. After the G20 meeting ended, environmentalists were disappointed that the major economic powers had not taken concrete steps on the global warming issues they had discussed (such as providing financing for climate-change measures in developing countries and ending fossil fuels subsidies).

Realism may dictate downplaying expectations for a meaningful treaty in Copenhagen. But at some point, Obama is going to have to say whether a treaty with hard-and-fast reductions remains a tangible goal. The challenge for the administration will be sidestepping away from this easy-to-understand aim without sending the message that its passion for combating global warming is no longer that hot.

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