Is Copenhagen Dead?

| Fri Sep. 25, 2009 1:00 PM PDT

Is the Obama administration giving up on reaching a comprehensive international climate change agreement this year? A statement released on Friday by John Podesta, who headed Barack Obama's presidential transition, is a big hint that the White House is looking to dramatically downplay expectations.

In the statement, Podesta, the head of the Center for American Progress, and Rajendra Pachauri, the chair of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, declare, "The world's leading economic powers remain inactive in preventing an increase in the serious impacts of climate change." The pair do not explicitly criticize the United States and the Obama administration. But their statement suggests that the Obama administration has not succeeded in leading the major global powers toward effective action:

While current impacts of climate change may not have reached alarming proportions, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, that will happen soon enough if we do not take early action. What is causing increasing concern, as the December UN climate summit in Copenhagen draws ever nearer, is the continuing deadlock in political action to deal with this challenge.

Podesta and Pachauri note that the commitment reached last July by G-8 countries—including the United States—to reduce global greenhouse emissions by 50 percent by 2050 is not sufficient and that the ongoing negotiations in advance of the Copenhagen conference do not "reflect this imperative."

The two paint a bleak picture of the road to Copenhagen:

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The interim U.N. meetings over the summer leading up to Copenhagen have not gone well. Still unresolved are fundamental differences between developed countries about whether the Kyoto Protocol should be continued or be abandoned altogether for an entirely new treaty. The document under discussion at the U.N. is some 200 pages of contradictory provisions from a variety of submissions from different countries. Practically every sentence contains bracketed language still needing debate and revision. The prospect of shaping this up into a coherent document by December, with only two more interim meetings to go, appears grim.

They conclude that the negotiations have reached an impasse, with the developing and developed countries disagreeing about how far each side should go to reduce emissions: "While it is true that developed countries carry the burden of historical responsibility, and must prove to be the first movers in mitigation, developing countries will become bigger emitters in the future; this intractable dynamic is proving unconstructive."

Looking for "a more positive track," Podesta and Pachauri urge the G-20 countries meeting in Pittsburgh—nations that together produce 80 percent of global warming emissions—"to focus on a series of mini-agreements that could be reached at or before Copenhagen." Their wish list includes measures that set-up multilateral collaborations to develop low-carbon technologies and that create financing arrangements to assist developing countries in meeting energy-efficiency goals and in slowing deforestation.

For enviros holding out hope for Copenhagen, the Podesta-Pachauri statement is a major downer. The two are dramatically depressing expectations—and plotting out an alternative track to the Copenhagen process. What makes Podesta's pessimism especially noteworthy is that for years he was a mentor to Todd Stern, who is now the senior US negotiator for Copenhagen. The two are close friends, and it is unlikely—make that, unimaginable—that Podesta, an experienced political player in Washington (who was a chief of staff for President Clinton), would express such a discouraging position on Copenhagen without consulting Stern.

Given that Podesta is quite well-informed on these matters, this appears to be a strong signal that the Obama administration—as the Senate puts off acting on climate change legislation—is giving up on achieving any grand accord to redress climate change this December. It's a stinging vote of no confidence in Copenhagen—and a sign that Obama administration officials, believing they cannot steer the nations of the world toward a meaningful treaty, are looking for a Plan B.

UPDATE: John Podesta posted a response to the above piece. Here it is in full:

While Mother Jones’ David Corn is an excellent reporter, he is a lousy tealeaf reader. Mr. Corn misread a recent article by Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, the chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and Nobel Peace Prize winner, and myself in advance of the G20 summit, incorrectly concluding our purpose was to downplay expectations on behalf of the Administration. Mr. Corn’s interpretation of our piece is inaccurate. Dr. Pachauri, one of the world’s foremost advocates for strong global action on climate change, and I both recognize that significant challenges remain in advance of the U.N. summit in December. But we are confident that the international community is poised to make substantial progress on climate change in Copenhagen, and that the U.S. is now in a position to exercise renewed leadership in pursuit of a best-case climate scenario.

The purpose of our September 23 piece was to emphasize the importance of climate change in advance of the G20 meetings and encourage the world’s top emitters to seize an important opportunity to take concrete steps to move forward in advance of December’s summit. It is not news that the divide between the unwieldy groups of developed and developing countries have stalled climate talks in the past and that they are drifting again. It is, however, noteworthy that major emitters have recently utilized new channels — the Administration’s Major Economies Forum, for example, as well as the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue — to lay the groundwork for a new climate agreement in Copenhagen. We think this is an important development and should be pursued whenever opportunities, like this week’s summit, arise. Our piece urged leaders at the G20 to pursue concrete actions prior to Copenhagen on issues such as financing arrangements, technology cooperation, and deforestation prevention to increase the chances of success in December.

Even in the midst of global economic crisis, climate change has remained at the top of the agenda both in the United States and in key countries around the world. There is broad consensus that the effects of climate change are not only real, but will be devastating to developed and developing countries alike if the international community fails to agree on a global emissions reduction strategy soon. The road ahead is not without obstacles, which our piece pointed out. But the fate of Copenhagen is far from sealed — and it is my strong belief that the Obama Administration is committed to doing all it can to lead the world into a low-carbon, clean energy future.

It still seems to me that by declaring that the pre-Copenhagen talks are at an "impasse" and that the prospects of reaching a treaty is "grim"—possibly realistic assessments—Podesta and Pachauri, two champions of countering climate change, are assuming that the climate summit will fall short of what's been the perceived public goal (a comprehensive global accord that leads to a serious reduction in emissions) and are now pushing for alternative mulitlateral actions and decisions that would mark real progress in redressing climate change (though perhaps not as much progress as a full-fledged and tough treaty). This might be a reasonable approach—maybe the only option—given the well-known conflicts in the pre-Copenahgen negotiations and the US Senate's inability to produce climate change legislation prior to the gathering. But if the Obama administration—which Podesta helped set up—has reached a similar conclusion, that would indeed be noteworthy and represent something of a shift (even if a necessary one) in its efforts to address global warming.

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