11/14/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Copenhagen Countdown: Todd Stern's Tough Spot

The clock is ticking down ominously on America's potential for climate change leadership, and it's worth taking stock of the historic -- and volatile -- moment we're now in.

Lost in the political storms of last week was an important cry from a key operator: President Obama's climate envoy, Todd Stern. As he urgently called for the Senate to pass a bill to address global warming, the tone of his remarks underscored the worrisome prospects for a new global deal on climate change at the Copenhagen conference in December.

"The most important thing is Congress send the president legislation," Stern told the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming. "It gives us the kind of credibility and leverage that'd be useful in the context of these negotiations."

He said that it is "critical that the Senate now do its part" and said "bluntly" that global negotiations have become "difficult." It was a clear cry for help and action at a crucial moment.

Stern's remarks to the Senate in June did not have quite the same sharp urgency: "I would love to have as much progress on the law by the time of Copenhagen as possible. If it can be done by Copenhagen, that would be great."

In other words, the great climate deal-making game is now in the fourth quarter. World diplomacy on the issue is accelerating, with several high-stakes events coming up, including the G-20 next week in Pittsburgh and President Obama's visit to China in November. We are barely a dozen weeks from Copenhagen.

Take a moment to consider the position of Stern, the globe-trotting special envoy who must lay the tracks for Copenhagen. He doesn't get a ton of press, and he deals in wonky details. But his job is all-important right now.

And here's the absurdity of his position: he has to extract promises from other nations who have no faith that his own country, the U.S., can or will deliver on the issue of capping emissions.

Moreover, remember that the Senate has to ratify any treaty he helps negotiate at Copenhagen. The U.S. Senate voted 95 to 0 against the last climate treaty, before the ink was dry or President Clinton could even submit it to Congress. So Stern can't guarantee anything on either end. Try playing with that hand.

Of course, Stern now has passage of the Markey-Waxman House climate bill to show as proof that America is serious about moving toward a successor to the Kyoto Protocol. But the question has been whether or not mere progress toward the goal -- or actually producing a signed bill before Copenhagen -- is necessary for the U.S. to strike a Copenhagen deal.

The fall began with bad news on that front: the new Senate bill was not introduced by Senators Kerry and Boxer on Sept. 8, as planned, and will be put off until at least late September.

So where does this leave Stern? Will he, and the U.S. delegation generally, have the weakest negotiating position imaginable in December -- with no more good-faith efforts from Washington, and some very tough, skeptical people across the table in Copenhagen?

From a scientific standpoint, the key to making any impact is getting both the U.S. and China to cut emissions dramatically. We produce collectively some 40 percent of the world's emissions. On that front, there has been some progress: starting with the "secret talks" early on; through promising, private-sector technology deals this year, which show a willingness to collaborate.

Throughout, Stern has been positive about talks with China, though he's still candid about the fact that there have been no "breakthroughs."

Much of what Stern is having to navigate -- and this dynamic goes back to Kyoto in the 1990s - is essentially the climate negotiator's paradox of who blinks first: I won't do a binding emissions cap if you won't do a binding cap first, ad nauseum.

Still, there's a decent possibility, according to Senator Maria Cantwell, that the U.S. and China might strike a bilateral deal, but no wider agreement could materialize at Copenhagen. "I'd place higher odds on the ability of the United States and China to reach an agreement than I would on us passing legislation or on having Copenhagen agreed," Cantwell said earlier this month during a trip to China.

China and India, and other developing nations, have turned up the heat to get serious concessions by the U.S. and other Western countries. They want help with clean tech and billions in aide to help them make the transition to greener economies.

They may get some of that, if U.S. politicians can be convinced it won't hurt America's economic competitiveness, and may even lead to new opportunities. Many of the details can be worked out at Copenhagen and follow-up conferences.

But the enormous question of this fall season remains: What does Stern need in hand to ink some preliminary deals, the kind that will lead to success at Copenhagen?

Most climate advocates agree that the worst possible outcome would be for the Senate to block a bill in advance of Copenhagen. Perhaps the old nuclear notion of "strategic ambiguity" of some kind on climate progress will be America's position. (Without a Senate bill, there are a variety of default scenarios, explained very well by Kate Sheppard at the New Republic.)

Senator Kerry, the Foreign Relations chairman, said in July that a final U.S. climate law would not necessarily lead to failure at Copenhagen: "Look, our goal is to pass it. I don't think we even have to have it passed, essentially. But our goal is to do that. And it's better if it is. But it's not catastrophic if it isn't."

It may not be catastrophic. But it sure leaves Todd Stern, the man of the climate change hour, in a tough spot.