03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Copenhagen Explained: A Game Of Double Jeopardy

This Is A Special From Mother Jones, Written By David Corn.

At the Copenhagen summit, there isn't a negotiating process to reach a climate pact. There are two. And that's a problem--perhaps big enough to pose a threat to the entire effort to reach an international deal.

Climate diplomacy is a complicated business. Here's the backstory. In 1992, at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, representatives from more than 150 nations--including President George H.W. Bush--signed an agreement giving birth to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Its mission: to find a way for the nations of the world to work together to respond to climate change. And it began holding sessions called the Conference of the Parties--COPs, in climate-diplo-speak. What's happening in Copenhagen is the 15th such session, hence the nickname COP15.

More history: In 1997, COP3 established the Kyoto Protocol, a treaty that set binding targets for greenhouse gas emissions for 37 industrialized countries (cutting emissions 5 percent below 1990 levels by 2012). At this point, developing countries were let off the hook. Back then, this made sense: In the previous 150 years, the developed countries had dumped most of the carbon into the atmosphere. President Bill Clinton signed the treaty, but he never submitted it to the Senate for ratification, realizing the treaty would not be approved. But 184 other countries went on to accept it. Thus were born two tracks: the Convention process (which included the United States) and the Kyoto process (which did not). The convention encourages industrialized nations to curb emissions; the protocol requires them to do so.

In the past 12 years, one set of international talks focused on implementing the Kyoto Protocol; these were called Meetings of Parties, or MOPs. The other set were the COPs. In 2007, COP13 in Bali set a two-year deadline to reach a long-term global pact for countering climate change. Such an accord would include all nations, including the United States, and presumably supplant Kyoto. To craft this treaty, the Convention set up a working group on "Long-term Cooperative Action" (LCA) and said, Let's get this done at COP15 in Copenhagen.

But--to make this more confusing--since 2005, the COPs and MOPs have been held at the same time. So COP15 includes the US-free MOP and the US-involved LCA.

And there's the rub: This split gives nations a handy way to try to wriggle out of tougher commitments.

The major developing nations--China, India, Brazil, Indonesia, and others--fancy MOPs, for under the Kyoto regimen they are not forced to reduce emissions and industrialized nations must. The United States and other Western countries favor the LCA because that process would cover China and the other leading developing nations that are quickly becoming the planet's leading polluters.

This has led to a lot of tough talk. At a press conference on Thursday, Lumumba Stanislaus Di-Aping, the Sudanese chairman of the Group of 77, the world's poorer nations, demanded that President Barack Obama join the Kyoto Protocol and offer deeper American cuts. "It's what we expect of him as a Nobel Prize an advocate of new multilateralism...and as a member of a family of the developing world," he said. European Union climate negotiators have been complaining vociferously that the major developing nations at COP15 are blocking the LCA from negotiating global reductions, for such discussions would push China and the rest to join the industrialized world in limiting emissions within a formal framework.

This debate over process has become a battlefield for the major clashes of Copenhagen. The Obama administration is pressing China and other emerging nations to commit to significant action, noting that these countries will be responsible for 97 percent of the future growth in emissions. (Also, Obama administration officials know that the US Senate will not approve any treaty that goes easy on China; in such an event, the Senate might even kill the pending climate change legislation.) Meanwhile, the developing nations want the historic polluters to go first with deep cuts, and they are demanding big bucks out of the North for clean energy technologies. (The United States and Europe are currently talking about making $10 billion available annually as a start; Di-Aping declared that the US Congress alone should appropriate $200 billion.)

Thus, the developing countries maintain that Kyoto (which happens to exempt them) is a ready-made process that should be used right here and now to forge a global pact including the United States. And the United States and Europe say the LCA (which would presumably lead to obligations for the major developing economies) should be the forum of choice. Anders Turesson, Sweden's chief climate negotiator, complained that this procedural dispute is wasting valuable time that could otherwise be spent figuring out the crucial specifics of reductions and international funding levels. "It's saddening," he remarked. On Thursday, Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the Convention, said, "the Kyoto Protocol will and must survive," explaining that it "is the only legally binding instrument we have to act on climate change."

The possible consequences of the two-track tussle were evident during the first dramatic moment in the summit's public proceedings. On Wednesday, the Pacific island nation of Tuvalu demanded two treaties: one under the Kyoto Protocol and another under the LCA. With such a plan, every major emitter would likely end up with serious and legally binding commitments. Several African nations and other island nations backed Tuvalu; China and India said no. China and India have indeed proposed measures to slow the growth of their emissions. But they want to stick with Kyoto so that their actions will not be subjected to a formal global accord and possible penalties if they don't make good on their word. The conference ground to a short halt over Tuvalu's proposal.

This episode demonstrated a divide among developing nations. The countries that are the most impoverished and the most endangered by climate change have much reason to fear the future emissions from the emerging developing countries. They need an agreement that compels both historic polluters and the new generation of polluters to stop spewing. As E&E Daily reported, several African negotiators "said the dispute with China underscored the growing rift over a larger question: Do the big developing countries really belong in the same category as the poorer ones? And do they truly share the same interests?"

Basically, what's at the heart of all the Copenhagen conflict is trust. The United States and Europe don't trust China, India, and other emerging nations to keep their vows, and they want these promises to be part of an official and enforceable deal. The major developing nations don't want to see the United States escape Kyoto; charge that proposed US cuts don't go far enough; point out that the LCA process at Copenhagen is yielding only a political agreement, not a binding treaty; and--possibly most important of all--don't trust the West to kick in enough money for developing nations, perhaps including themselves. (On Wednesday, US climate envoy Todd Stern said, "I don't envision public funds--certainly not from the United States--going to China.")

"The ideal would be to merge the two tracks," said Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists, "but the politics are intense." And Artur Runge-Metzger, the chief negotiator for the European Union, noted that the developing nations see the preservation of Kyoto as "a total redline that puts the whole deal at risk."

Paul Bledsoe, who worked on climate change issues in the Clinton White House, said that these sort of procedural skirmishes "always happen in the first week." But he predicts an agreement will come. Still, to reach that point the United States and the other nations will have to put aside these deep-rooted bureaucratic disputes--perhaps leaving them unresolved for the time being--and deal not with the intricacies of MOPs but the difficult details of climate cleanup.

David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. For more of his stories, click here. He's also on twitter.