New York Times
COPENHAGEN -- President Obama may have improved his chances for passing global warming legislation in the Senate by forging an interim international agreement here that puts both rich and poor countries on a path to curtail greenhouse gas emissions.
During the round-the-clock, raucous negotiations that ended Saturday, Obama and his team worked with the leaders of China, India, Brazil, South Africa and about 20 other countries to commit to emission cuts that will be open to international review.
While much work still needs to be done before the interim Copenhagen Accord (pdf) becomes a legally binding treaty, it won some early praise from some who are key to moving a climate bill through the Senate.
"Home run," said Mark Helmke, a top staffer to Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), the ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee. "Satisfied the Europeans. Made China into a major world player, but made them accountable. Elevated India, Brazil and South Africa to world stage. Cut an important side deal with Russians on arms control."
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), added, "Whenever you have developing countries, and certainly China and India stepping forward and indicating that they have a willingness to be a participant, I think that's a strong indicator that we'll have opportunities to be working and I think that that is progress."
Obama still has much to do both to sell the Copenhagen Accord internationally and move climate legislation on Capitol Hill. Conservative Republicans and longtime industry opponents quickly savaged the agreement as a toothless failure. And many other moderates that Obama likely will need to pass a climate bill remained far from convinced the international deal has any merit.
"It's a nothing burger," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), adding that while he had not read the actual language that was slowly emerging from Copenhagen, he had been told by others not to expect much.
In Copenhagen, the Obama administration never strayed from the reality that Congress has not passed final climate legislation. It was a hard-line stance that meant the United States could not go as far as many world leaders wanted in the hope of reaching a legally binding treaty at the conclusion of the two-week, U.N.-led summit. But it may be useful when it comes to perceptions back home.
Obama's negotiators never budged amid calls by Sudan and other poor countries to simply join the Kyoto Protocol -- the 1997 U.N. agreement that was long ago vilified by the Senate. They also resisted pleas from the Europeans, Africans and many other nations to set even stronger emission targets, a move that would have put them at odds with the House-passed climate bill (H.R. 2454 (pdf)) and its still-evolving Senate counterpart.
And the United States also overcame efforts by China and India to ban the use of border tariffs on their export of energy-intensive goods -- a hammer that about a dozen senators see as critical to having before they would even consider voting for climate legislation. Several drafts circulating at the Bella Center proposed stripping any country of this right, but the idea never got further than bracketed text that meant no consensus.
Before the Copenhagen visit, Obama aides downplayed expectations for the trip and even talked openly about the prospect of coming home with nothing at all (E&ENews PM, Dec. 17).
But Saturday, the president was able to take credit for achieving some degree of success with the new climate accord while simultaneously relishing in the Senate's progress toward passing health care legislation that has taken top billing on Capitol Hill over global warming and energy.
"Even though we have a long way to go, there's no question that we've accomplished a great deal over the last few days," Obama said. "I want America to continue to lead on this journey, because if America leads in developing clean energy, we will lead in growing our economy and putting our people back to work, and leaving a stronger and more secure country to our children."
Who else will sign up?
The Copenhagen Accord's biggest breakthrough are the pledges that countries big and small are making to curtail their emissions. For the major developing economies, it means they have made first-ever commitments for greenhouse gas reductions that are subject to "international consultations and analysis."
In exchange for working on the details of a transparent new treaty, many of the poorest will gain access to a new $30 billion short-term Copenhagen Green Fund filled by Japan, the European Union, United States and others. There are trillions of dollars more -- from a mix of public and private financing, including revenue raised from the auctioning of emission allowances under a possible U.S. bill -- if they live up to their commitments (ClimateWire, Dec. 17).
That language is the outcome of years of debate that essentially boiled down to giving Obama and the Senate some degree of certainty that another nation's pledge can be checked to see if they are doing what they say they will.
Already, the 27 countries and the European Union who negotiated directly with Obama on Friday have signed up with their own pledges. And Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed predicted Saturday that about 120 nations are already engaged in the overall international negotiation process and would sign up before a February deadline to turn in pledges.
Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) said signatures from the United States and China -- which combine for about half of annual global greenhouse gas emissions -- should put pressure on other countries to sign up too.
"Now the proof will be in our willingness to do some things we need to do, and assuming we step up, I think that's going to set an example to a lot of other countries," Kerry said.
U.N. climate chief Yvo de Boer went so far as to say that many of the developing country commitments combine for a reduction in emissions 28 percent below business as usual and thus are stronger than the pledges of the industrialized countries. "You could say developing countries are more on track to responding to science than the industrialized countries are," de Boer said.
Some environmentalists welcomed the Copenhagen Accord as a useful step that can generate more votes on Capitol Hill, even if it did not do everything they would have liked.
"Obama had to have a deal in Copenhagen," said Melissa Carey, a climate change policy specialist at the Environmental Defense Fund. "The Senate absolutely needed to see movement from developing nations, and that's what we got. Was it everything we need to see? No. Was it enough? Thank God, yes. China could have given us the stiff-arm, and it didn't happen."
Kerry, the principle sponsor of the Senate climate bill, said the interim nature of the agreement does not matter as much as the substance of who signed up for what.
"I think you had to have some deal where the major emitters are beginning to reduce," Kerry said. "Having China at the table was the most critical thing because most of our colleagues are saying, 'Well what about China? What about China? If they don't do it, it won't make any difference.' The less developed countries, the truly less developed countries barely emit. And so we have some time to work with them to bring them to the table."
"Copenhagen helps us in the Senate, if not as much as a more complete result would have," said Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club. "It demonstrated that India and China, along with Brazil, South Africa, Indonesia are committed unilaterally to moving beyond our current carbon based economy."
Still, it is far from clear how Copenhagen translates to Senate votes.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Kerry's lead Republican partner, said, "I think it's a mixed bag with Copenhagen. My approach to this is really not that much Copenhagen dependent. Energy independence, there's a lot of votes for."
Several senators harped on the fact the accord keeps the U.N.-led negotiations in a preliminary stage.
"Unless India and China are bound and we know what the details are -- I don't think necessarily that their agreeing to goals or whatever it was they agreed to will have an effect on cap and trade," said Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.). "If there was a binding agreement that tied them into limits that were meaningful, then I think that would have advanced the legislation," he added. "From what I understand of this, it's more of agreeing to goals."
Doubting the Chinese
At Saturday's early morning vote on the Defense spending bill, senators from both parties questioned whether developing countries are serious despite negotiating for several hours with Obama.
"I think that the Chinese are perfectly capable of being on board for something and then not doing it," said Commerce Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.).
"I know for a fact that even though the government of China says they are committed to X and Y, the economy in China is run by the governors of the state," said Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio). In the United States, he insisted, "we know that if we commit to something, we will do it."
Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.) scoffed at the notion the developing countries would live up to their Copenhagen commitments. "They are going to continue to develop the energy they need," Bond said. "They're not fools."
Climate bill opponents went after all aspects of the Copenhagen Accord and they doubted it would do anything to help Kerry and his allies. "Speed things along?" said Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.). "You've got to be kidding me, surely you jest. ... Nothing was done, another total failure, just like all the rest of them."
"I don't think they got anything in Copenhagen that encourages anyone," said Sen. Robert Bennett (R-Utah), who then paused for a moment, before adding, "Except Jim Inhofe."
Off Capitol Hill, longtime climate bill opponents questioned whether Copenhagen led to any substance because of its lack of a legally binding nature.
"Clearly there are significant concerns globally with approving a binding treaty that would effectively impede economic growth worldwide and do little for the environment itself," added Charles Drevna, the president of the National Petrochemical & Refining Association. "With China balking as blatantly as it did, the Senate should step back from this issue and consider the consequences of capping our economic growth, as it should anyway."
"It's all over for the near future, and it's back to the drawing board for the alarmists and advocates of energy-rationing policies," said Myron Ebell, a skeptic on climate science and director of energy and global warming policy at the free-market Competitive Enterprise Institute.
David Doniger, policy director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's Climate Center, likened the developing country pledges to being "original cosponsors" of legislation on Capitol Hill. Doniger said he doubted any of the signatories would back away from the table now, especially because the Copenhagen Accord comes with an opportunity for the least developed countries of the world to gain access to a $30 billion fund through 2012, as well as a medium-term account worth about $100 billion annually starting in 2020.
"You have to focus more on the web of interest and relationship that binds countries together in a working agreement," Doniger said, citing as an example the 1987 Montreal Protocol that has widespread international support in trying to address the hole in the ozone layer.
"The countries that belong to it are loyal to it," Doniger said. "They own it. And when they build up that sense of ownership, when you come to disagreement on specific issues, they're committed to support it and work it through. That's what we've got to get to in a new climate agreement."
No deadline, no whip
Kerry and company plan to spend next month writing their bill and getting it to U.S. EPA, the Congressional Budget Office and other analysts for a series of modeling runs ahead of a planned floor debate in the spring. In Copenhagen, environmentalists and former Vice President Al Gore called on Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to set an Earth Day deadline of April 22 to pass the bill. Reid has not responded, and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said during his visit that would not be a good idea (Greenwire, Dec. 17).
Early versions of the Copenhagen agreement included a deadline for when diplomats would need to finish their work on the next legally binding climate treaty either in June or November 2010. But the final version dropped it, taking away a whip for Obama, Kerry and other allies to try and get their work done in Washington.
Some Democratic aides said Kerry could have used a deadline to keep the issue front and center for fence-sitting senators, ultimately forcing them to consider an issue they would rather ignore after a tough year of votes on the economy and health care. Conservatives smelled red meat.
"The moderates can only take so many unpopular votes in one Congress and the only thing more unpopular than climate legislation is the health care bill," warned Andrew Wheeler, former GOP staff director to Inhofe.
Lawmakers also may be content to stay away from the climate debate if they see it as being driven by the demands of Europe and the rest of the world.
"Look, I don't succumb to international pressure," said Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.).
"Honestly, I think it's something that we need to work with other countries on, but I don't expect other countries to pressure us." Nelson added, "This is not the United States' responsibility to please the world, secure the world, or enforce against the world with these kinds of requirements. We need to participate to the extent we can and to me that's our role."
As for Obama, a whole series of questions emerge now that he has claimed a stake of the climate debate with his performance in Copenhagen.
Where does he place climate and energy during his State of the Union address early next year? Does he make a nationally televised prime-time address on climate similar to September's health care speech? What political muscle does he invest on the issue before next November?
In Copenhagen, a wide variety of people from around the globe said Obama had lost some of his luster since the election. But some U.S.-based environmentalists say Obama demonstrated in Copenhagen and the days surrounding his trip here just how much he is engaged on the issue. For example, Fred Krupp, the president of the Environmental Defense Fund, said Obama was able to argue the ins and outs of the domestic and international climate debate during an Oval Office meeting with environmentalists and business officials just before Copenhagen.
"What will drive this bill is presidential leadership, and Obama showed he has the determination and leadership skills to put it all on the line and deliver," said Jeremy Symons of the National Wildlife Federation. "Would you bet against him after pulling off the breakthrough in Copenhagen when the talks had died? Not me."
"I'm sure Senate observers got an sobering assessment of the international dimension of the climate issue -- but they also saw the president's resolve," added Dirk Forrester, president of the NatSource consulting firm and former head of the Clinton-era White House Climate Change Task Force.
Forrester said he expects Obama to remain deeply engaged back in Washington now that Copenhagen is in the rear view mirror.
"Since he's done it on the world stage, he'll likely push hard domestically too, maintaining credibility and leadership," Forrester said. "He came in against the odds, and withstood unbelievable assaults from Sudan and Venezuela, but he and his team stood their ground and forged a compromise that was very broadly supported."
Obama did not directly respond when reports asked about his plans for the Senate bill just before boarding Air Force One. At the White House, 18 hours later, Obama dropped just one tempting sentence listing his now familiar reasons for soon passing a climate bill. "That's why I went to Copenhagen yesterday and that's why I will continue in these efforts in the weeks and months to come," the president said before taking in his own snow day.