Is Copenhagen Dead? Podesta Replies

| Sat Sep. 26, 2009 6:47 PM EDT

John Podesta posted a response to my article on a statement he co-wrote that I characterized as a signal the Obama administration has concluded that producing a comprehensive global warming treaty at the upcoming Copenhagen summit will not be possible and that alternative measures must be pursued. Here is Podesta's reply 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.