Three Reasons for Hope in Copenhagen

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

The symbolism can't be missed in the U.S. Nearly 70 years after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, on December 7th 1941, "A day that will live in infamy!" declared President Roosevelt, Japanese delegates are sitting down with U.S. representatives in Copenhagen to forge policies based on hope. It is the hope that policies agreed upon by the 190 nations attending the conference can be made legally binding, and then acted upon by 2020.

With this in mind, here is why I am also hopeful.

First, the delegation that the U.S. has sent to Copenhagen and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is first rate. It is not simply a team of lawyers and diplomats. It includes a powerhouse of leaders from the agencies who will implement policies that emerge from the two week meeting.

U.S. delegates include: Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson, Council on Environmental Quality Chair Nancy Sutley, Office of Science and Technology Policy Director John Holdren, and Assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Change Carol Browner.

Second, President Obama's decision to wait until the final day of the UNFCCC to arrive is a major, symbolic victory for the conference. The final day is also a day of photo opps, as world leaders show up to bask in the spotlight of a successful outcome. Obama's decision to return to Europe on December 18 instead of this week -- enroute to Norway to receive the Nobel Peace Prize -- shows his belief that major goals will be reached.

By contrast, in 2007, at the UNFCCC in Bali, the U.S. delegation was booed by fellow delegates on the final day for their role in obstructing the process. It was not a good day for photo opps. At that time, delegates believed that it would be necessary to wait to finalize any agreement until 2009, in Copenhagen, when the U.S. elected a new president.

Now, faced with the prospect of a polarized U.S. Congress (which must sign off on any agreement for it to be legally binding for this country), delegates to Copenhagen believe that final, legally binding agreements will be forthcoming in late 2010 -- after the U.S. holds elections again -- or in 2011.

And this final point, the requirement for the U.S. Congress to sign off on any document produced at Copenhagen for it to legally bind us to those agreements, is another reason why I'm hopeful.

It may now be true, that the real power in America no longer resides with Congress. With deep polarization between the Republicans and Democrats, and gridlock in Congress, power may be shifting back to local and regional leadership -- that is, to Main Street.

Several cities across the U.S., including Boulder, Colo., are sending delegates to Copenhagen to both observe the process and speak about local approaches to global warming and climate change. Here, close to home, I think, is where the real hope resides, not simply in policy deliberations in Copenhagen.