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

Road to Copenhagen: Waiting for America


From September through December, I'll be tracking the American positions in the international climate treaty negotiations for the Adopt-A-Negotiator
project. Together, we're tracking the negotiators from twelve key
countries up to and through the December COP15 meetings in Copenhagen.

As the last round of “intersessional” climate talks before
Copenhagen opened today in Barcelona, all eyes were looking in the same
direction they were when we left Bangkok three weeks earlier: at the
United States. Without American numbers on mitigation (or emissions
reductions) and finance (for developing nations to build their own
clean energy economies, and also to adapt to the impacts of climate
change), any real forward progress in the talks is just about
impossible. “We need a clear target from the United States in
Copenhagen,” urged Yvo de Boer, who’s charged with steering this UNFCCC
(United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) process to some
kind of December resolution.” “That is an essential component of the
puzzle.” The problem is that the U.S. isn’t putting anything out there.
At least not yet. Not while the Kerry-Boxer bill limps through Senate
subcommittees back on Capital Hill.

And that’s really where De Boer’s comment–and most criticism of the
American position–is directed. Not at the negotiating team here, but
towards Washington. In the U.S. delegation’s defense–their hands have
been tied pretty tight. The State Department hasn’t wanted to write a
check that our domestic politics can’t cash. If Kyoto taught us
anything, it’s that nobody can trust the U.S. until they see what’s
actually written into law. (Quick history lesson–the U.S. signed the
Kyoto Protocol back in 1998; eleven years later, it still hasn’t been
ratified. At least 185 countries have ratified the Protocol, from
Russia to Rwanda to Australia to Iraq. Iraq!) So there’s a massive
trust gap. To be a credible player going into Copenhagen, the U.S. has
to show something concrete coming from the home front. Lead negotiator
Jonathan Pershing has not been at all coy about the fact that he needs
to bring home a treaty that will be signed and ratified. (And, yes, if
all this sounds familiar, that’s because it is. The story was more or less the same last month in Bangkok.)

So everyone’s waiting on America.Waiting for those crucial U.S.
cards to land on the table. Without them, we’re seeing the kickoff of a
couple diplomatic games: the guessing game and the shame game. In the
absence of official figures from the U.S. delegation, some folks are
speculating as to what they might look like when and if they do. “If
you look at Obama’s election indications of what he thinks the U.S. can
do,” de Boer said in his press conference, “and look at the legislation
that came out of the House and see what it is in the Senate now, it
doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see where the U.S. is likely to end
up.” For the record, the Kerry-Boxer bill would commit a roughly
7-percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels by
2020. This is well below the comparable midterm mitigation targets set
out by the European Union (20- or 30-percent, depending on whether or
not other rich nations sign on) and Japan (25-percent), and not even
close to the 40-percent cuts called for by most developing countries.

But even such a modest (to put it very gently) commitment
would be more productive than no numbers at all. Thus the shaming. De
Boer openly praised some key developing nations, thanking China, India,
Mexico and Brazil for bringing their respective and ambitious goals to
the table. “Today, already China is the world leader in terms of
reducing emissions,” de Boer offered. “The world is lacking similar
clarity from industrial nations.” It was clear who he was referring to.
Piling on, the Chair of the COP15 talks, Danish minister for climate
and energy Connie Hedegaard, added that “[it's] hard to imagine how the
American president can be receiving the Nobel Peace Prize on Dec. 10 in
Oslo, 100 kilometers from Copenhagen, and at the same time send an
empty-handed delegation to Copenhagen.”

It’s lining up to be a tough week for the U.S. team, as these barbs
will likely sharpen and delegates are forced onto the diplomatic
defensive. The best hope for some truly productive dialogue this week
in Barcelona actually comes from back in D.C. tomorrow. President Obama
will meet with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Swedish Prime Minister
Fredrik Reinfeldt, and other key E.U. foreign policy players for a
U.S.-E.U. Summit in the White House, and climate finance is on the
agenda. After European leaders laid out their first finance proposal on
Friday, pressure is on the States to make a formal offer. We’ll soon
find out whether the White House is comfortable stepping in front of
Congress on the critical issue of finance.

Follow along the U.S. delegation as they negotiate their way to Copenhagen.