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Obama the Calculator: A Copenhagen Postmortem

4 years ago
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For the past two weeks, as I covered the Copenhagen climate summit, I was able to observe closely the political calculus of Barack Obama. The conference peaked (or crashed) with a master stroke for Obama -- but perhaps not for the planet and billions of its inhabitants whose lives depend upon stabilizing the atmosphere.

If you've followed my previous dispatches or have glanced at a newspaper in the past few days, you've probably gotten the gist. As the conference was coming to what looked like a disastrous close, Obama, in a closed-door meeting, cut a deal with China (and India, Brazil, and South Africa). The goal of this U.N.-organized conference was to draft a binding treaty that would compel all the major emitters of global warming pollution to curb their emissions at rates scientists say are necessary to avert the more dangerous consequences of climate change. But the arrangement reached in that room produced merely a non-binding accord, under which nations will declare their own voluntary reductions. The pact established no firm targets for reductions or concrete schedule for decreasing emissions. Though Obama pushed hard for verification measures that would allow the world to determine if any particular country (meaning China) is meeting its self-proclaimed goals, the final wording of this provision was weak and vague. The accord does state that developed nations will devote $30 billion in the next three years to international program to help poorer nations contend with climate change and mobilize a $100 billion annual fund starting in 2020. But it left key details about these programs unstated. And the accord established no path for further negotiations.

All this was quite far from the goal that Obama has endorsed: a comprehensive and binding treaty in line with the science. So why did he engineer such a pact? He and his top aides clearly had concluded that the complicated and tortuous talks at the conference were leading nowhere--perhaps to no agreement at all. There were too many conflicts to resolve. China and other emerging developing nations didn't want to be covered by a treaty. Poor nations sided with them on this, but some disagreed with China and the others over whether an agreement should aim to limit a global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees or 2 degrees Celsius. (The higher number, backed by China, India, the United States, and other big emitters, could cause water crises for 1.8 billion people in Africa.) The European Union yearned for deeper cuts from the United States and the major developing countries and offered to increase its own proposed reductions by 50 percent, if these other countries did more. (The other countries did not meet the EU's standards; so it did not adopt the deeper cuts.) The United States and Europe proposed a $100 billion fund; developing nations demanded a bigger amount. Meanwhile, several bad actors -- Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Bolivia -- were trying to blow up the proceedings. Under the UN rules for the climate change negotiations, any final agreement would have to be accepted by all of the 193 countries present. That's certainly one way to kill one-world government!

Obama decided a comprehensive treaty was a bridge too far. And he pulled off a deft political maneuver. He circumvented the UN process (ticking off less powerful nations), screwed his European allies (by cutting them out of the real talks), and reached out to his top opponent in the negotiations: China.

When he announced the watered-down deal, Obama acknowledged that it did not include sufficient reductions -- meaning global warming would continue at an alarming pace. But his argument is this: we at least roped China and other major developing nations into a system in which they're going to have to commit to some form of emissions limits (even if those obligations are not binding under international law). It's a start, he and his aides would contend, and better than what the UN blah-bah-blah would have produced. Not coincidentally, persuading China to submit to any form of emissions curbs will help Obama pass the climate change bill pending in the Senate, where foes of that measure have been saying the US should not cut emissions if China and others keep spewing.

Copenhagen became classic Obama: he focused more on his opponents than his allies and accepted a deal far weaker than what he himself had claimed was necessary. See health care reform. I've missed the debate on that bill for the past two weeks, but I have caught some highlights -- such as the report that Republican Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe, who was once passionately courted by Obama, has now declared she's not going to vote for the bill. I also see that Howard Dean proclaimed the compromised Senate compromise as worse than nothing. Abortion rights groups also are angry. And -- do I have this right? -- at some point Sen. Joe Lieberman waged a successful coup and took over the US government.

As with climate change, the White House is arguing, we're getting the best we can, there are positive provisions, and we can improve on this later. (Tell me, which members of Congress are going to be eager to revisit this subject any time in the next two decades?) Obama could have pressed for a more ambitious health care bill, one more in keeping with what he proposed during the presidential campaign. And he could have exploited Senate rules to end-run a GOP filibuster and pass legislation closer to the desires of his party. But he chose the conventional route and perhaps he has a point: achieve what's possible through the traditional mechanism and build on that.

Here's the rub. That may work for health care (though anyone with health insurance problems unaddressed by the legislation won't be so sanguine). It may not work for climate change. Time could be short. Scientists worry about tipping points: if high levels of carbon dioxide trigger severe changes in the climate, it will be impossible to redress the consequent problems. Put simply, it's tough to recreate a polar ice cap.

In the health care reform battle, Obama only wanted a vote out of Snowe. He didn't need her to do anything after that. With climate change, he must get China and the other major developing nations to do more than say "yea." China has surpassed the United States as the world's No. 1 emitter. As US officials repeatedly said at Copenhagen, China and its fellow emerging economic powerhouses will be responsible for 97 percent of the growth in greenhouse gasses in the next decade. Europe and the United States can reduce their emissions dramatically, but the atmosphere will still be at tremendous risk unless China and the others quickly throttle back. (This is indeed unfair; the United States and other industrialized countries got rich befouling the atmosphere with CO2. But China and India cannot do the same -- without casting the lethal blow to the atmosphere.)

So the fate-of-the-world question is, did Obama's political razzle-dazzle in Copenhagen produce a result that truly addresses the China problem? Under this agreement, Beijing is not committed to any global targets for reductions. With weak verification mechanisms, the Chinese dictatorship could change its goals or fudge its numbers. More worrisome, China might hide behind this accord and dodge any future talks designed to create a binding treaty with scientifically-guided reductions that would force China to ramp up its reductions. It's possible that by undermining the UN process for the sake of reaching an accommodation with China, Obama has undercut the only process that could truly hold China to task.

Will this accord nudge China in the right direction (and also lead the United States toward more serious reductions)? Or will it provide China an escape hatch? There's no telling. But Obama's fancy steps might have yielded a short-term win that causes a long-term loss. That's the thing with political calculations: immediate gains are often easy to see; the full costs are often hard to measure.

You can follow David Corn's postings and media appearances via Twitter.

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