15 November, 2009

Can the US Congress set the global climate change agenda?

APEC has become the opportunity for the US to try to recast the expectations about Copenhagen. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had already forewarned that the US was “100-percent committed to creating a framework agreement, not a legally binding treaty.”

Sergio Abranches

President Obama had already decided to only accept internationally binding mitigation commitments that were already voted by Congress. Although EPA has a broad mandate, the Executive felt it still needs a Federal Climate Change bill approved by Congress to fully define its range of action at the global arena.

It is unlikely that Congress will approve a climate change bill within the next 20 days. Without it the US would not help designing a legally binding treaty in Copenhagen.

The problem is that without a definition from the US, China will hardly play all the cards it has prepared to take to Copenhagen. The US and China are the two pivotal players to seal a global climate change deal.

The fate of the Copenhagen Summit now depends on a tree-way dilemma, a variation of sorts of the “Prisoner’s Dilemma” game. Obama will only commit the US internationally to what Congress writes into law. China will only move forward after the US plays its hand. As Congress stalls the climate change bill, Obama retreats from his own personal pledge to lead an ambitious climate deal, and China also holds its hand. This amounts to both the US and China defecting from a deal in Copenhagen.

Enters the solution of a “politically binding”, rather than a “legally binding” agreement. It helps Obama to save face, and gives him more time to wrestle with a recalcitrant Democratic majority and a hardline Republican opposition to get a climate change bill voted. But it also breaks the momentum that has been building up towards sealing a meaningful deal in Copenhagen.

China had made an important move at the New York Summit, announcing it was prepared to decide on a relevant reduction of the carbon intensity of its GDP by 2020. The details of what a “relevant reduction” would mean were left to be laid down at the table in Copenhagen. The condition was that the US also made a significant commitment. The European Union has already made a concrete commitment. The Japanese prime-minister Yukio Hatoyama stated that the new government he leads is committed to deeper emissions cuts than his predecessor had approved. Brazil announced, for the first time, its own commitment to a quantified target for emissions cut, just a few hours before president Lula took the presidential plane to visit his French colleague.

Why should all, now, step backwards, just to come into line with the US? Is the fact that president Obama’s domestic leadership has not been strong enough to get Congress to act reason enough for a regress? Should we loose momentum so arduously gained over the last months to keep waiting for Obama’s own momentum?

What would this compromise solution look like anyway? How different would it be from simply redrawing the “Bali Roadmap”?

Denmark’s Prime Minister, Lars Lokke Rasmussen, also chairman of the climate conference, flew to Singapore on Saturday for an emergency meeting to help answer this question.

As Jonathan Weisman reported for The Wall Street Journal, this Sunday, what he said was:

“Even if we may not hammer out the last dot’s of a legally binding instrument, I do believe a political binding agreement with specific commitment to mitigation and finance provides a strong basis for immediate action in the years to come.”

According to The Wall Street Journal:

Mr. Rasmussen laid out in some detail his goals for the Copenhagen summit. He said leaders should produce a five- to eight-page text with “precise language” committing developed countries to reductions of emissions thought to be warming the planet, with provisions on adapting to warmer temperatures, financing adaptation and combating climate change in poor countries, and technological development and diffusion. It would include pledges of immediate financing for early action.

That doesn’t sound much different from the “Bali Roadmap”, and we should be reminded that the Roadmap led us nowhere but to the same deadlock we were before. Remember the Poznan dismal ending.

Mr. Rasmussen was also very much concerned to make it clear that his idea does not serve to save face:

“We are not aiming to let anyone off the hook,” Mr. Rasmussen told the leaders. “We are trying to create a framework that will allow everybody to commit,” reported the Wall Street Journal.

Helene Cooper, writing from Singapore for The New York Times says  Michael Froman, the deputy national security adviser for international economic affairs has explained that:

“There was an assessment by the leaders that it is unrealistic to expect a full internationally, legally binding agreement could be negotiated between now and Copenhagen, which starts in 22 days.”

Nothing that secretary Clinton had not said prior to the APEC meeting. Most of the difficulty now lies on the side of the US, not of other pivotal players that could lead the Copenhagen talks towards a real deal.

The US government keeps talking about a remote future on vague terms. Typical diplomat’s escapist phases were rapidly learned by Secretary of State Clinton to adorn the US pledge for more time. At a news conference earlier this month, she warned that the parties to the climate summit could not

“let the pursuit of perfection get in the way of progress.”

She also said that

“if we all exert maximum effort and embrace the right blend of pragmatism and principle, I believe we can secure a strong outcome at Copenhagen and that would be a stepping stone toward full legal agreement.”

This sounds pretty much like what has been done in Bali. In Poznan, the world agreed to wait until president Obama’s administration fully took hold of affairs so that it could make its pledge at COP15, in Copenhagen.

Most of the nations have already moved a step forward regarding both COP13 and COP14. Only the US remains basically where it was since Obama’s inauguration. Would it not now be the time for the US to get some speed of its own?

President Obama could surely use a “framework agreement” (Secretary Clinton has never used the term “politically binding”) as a powerful resource to persuade the Democratic majority to vote more swiftly the climate change bill, before next year’s midterm elections. But that would come at the cost of another year lost.

It should come as no surprise that president Obama choses the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting to state the US  position about what is feasible to do in Copenhagen.

It is well known that the US and China have been discussing a common strategy for Copenhagen for some time now. Although they are not playmates entirely at ease with one another, the fact that China conditions its own commitment to the US’s perfectly suits the Obama strategy. Obama needs to seem to be leading the US into a meaningful attitude at the climate talks, to differentiate himself from the Bush era climate diplomacy. He doesn’t want, however, to commit to any concrete action before knowing what Congress has approved. A “framework agreement” suits him well, and he expects China to follow suit.

Their interplay has, however, already raised some strong reactions among other pivotal leaders in Copenhagen. Presidents Sarkozy, of France, and Lula da Silva, of Brazil, reacted to the US-China entente by declaring they would push for a complete deal in Copenhagen. President Lula went as far as raising suspicion that the US and China were trying to create “a G2” to impose their common interests to the rest of the world.

It is unlikely that the United States and China could solve all their conflicts of interest to form an alliance to play a two-party hegemonic role in world affairs. It is true, nevertheless, that the two are the key players regarding many critical global issues, climate change being paramount among them. It is far better that they try to work together, than to build a new bipolarity as the one between the US and the USSR, during the Cold War, that plagued most of last century’s international relations. But this maneuver to delay an agreement in Copenhagen clearly deviates from the endeavors of several other players.

According to The Wall Street Journal, Michael Froman interpreted the decision as meaning that “Copenhagen would be the first step to a legally binding agreement.” This two-step doctrine was also behind the Bali Roadmap, to no avail.

We need far more than that to break the deadlock. If a political agreement is the only way, it cannot be drafted on such vague terms as US authorities have been using. It has to point to concrete political solutions to the hurdles that are still holding back a treaty.

The scientific and technical details for such a deal are well known and there is not much room to deviate from them. It is the political groundwork that is still lacking, and most of what is lacking must come from president Obama and the US.

In other words: it would have to be far more of a “politically binding” agreement, than a “framework agreement”. The US would have to commit to far more real action than it has been willing to do so far. And it would still be a second best, or suboptimal, outcome.

The deadlock and the divide among countries are set into political, not technical grounds. This is a fact. Another roadmap for future talks is not a solution to this political deadlock, only its reiteration.

Copenhagen has not been politically saved yet. It is up to the other world leaders to urge the US and president Obama to come up with a more substantive response. After all we are still talking about the world’s largest emitter.

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