Back in 2008, precisely 14 days after winning a historic election, president-elect Barack Obama addressed a global climate summit in Los Angeles. His words were unequivocal:
Few challenges facing America -- and the world -- are more urgent than combating climate change. The science is beyond dispute and the facts are clear. Sea levels are rising. Coastlines are shrinking. We've seen record drought, spreading famine, and storms that are growing stronger with each passing hurricane season. ...
[O]nce I take office, you can be sure that the United States will once again engage vigorously in these negotiations, and help lead the world toward a new era of global cooperation on climate change. Now is the time to confront this challenge once and for all. Delay is no longer an option. Denial is no longer an acceptable response. The stakes are too high. The consequences, too serious.
How quickly things change.
In a sharply-worded letter sent to Secretary of State Hilary Clinton on Tuesday, a coalition of environmental and climate-action groups identify the United States as a bad-faith negotiator and an unprincipled impediment to global climate talks now underway in Durban, South Africa. Just three years after President Obama's rising call to action, the authors of the letter say, "America risks being viewed not as a global leader on climate change, but as a major obstacle to progress."
Although a multitude of seemingly irreparable fissures and fault lines attend the negotiations, two key and relatively straightforward issues are currently at play in Durban. The United States is taking a hard-line position on both.
The first involves cash. Poor, economically undeveloped nations with little in the way of energy and industrial infrastructure are not really to blame for the build-up of heat-trapping gases enveloping the planet. Responsibility for that problem sits squarely on the shoulders of the United States and other developed countries, which belched gigatons of carbon pollution into the atmosphere over a prosperous century of fossil-fueled industrial growth.
And yet, with meager resources available to adjust and adapt, poor nations are likely to suffer the most from the effects of a problem that they did little to create.
At the 2009 climate talks in Copenhagen, the U.S. signaled, along with other industrialized nations, that it was prepared to begin playing a role in creating a global climate financing system to address these imbalances. Such a fund, which Secretary Clinton herself said at the time could and should reach $100 billion a year in assistance by 2020, would help poor nations retain their carbon-sipping forests; develop and prosper on clean-energy technologies instead of relying on coal and other carbon-intensive fuels; and prepare and adapt their infrastructures for the impacts of global warming that won't likely be stopped.
At talks in Cancun last year, global negotiators, including representatives of the U.S., agreed to set up an international committee to flesh out the financing scheme, which became known as the Green Climate Fund, and an initial design for the fund was presented in Cape Town, South Africa in late October. It was a difficult document to draft, and many countries, both rich and poor, had objections to some of its particulars, including how the money would be managed, who would have final say on what projects would be funded, and how closely the fund would be tied to the larger U.N. climate regime.
In the spirit of moving things forward, however, all parties agreed to accept the document as a working draft to bring to Durban. The U.S., joined only by Saudi Arabia, rejected it.
The Americans' grounds for the rejection were varied. They wanted the fund to have more autonomy from the U.N., for example, as well as a greater role for contributions from the private sector and rules requiring some developing nations to kick in some cash of their own. But in maintaining their hard stance this week, critics say, the U.S. has prompted other countries to begin backing off the document for other reasons. "We are deeply concerned that opening up these recommendations to renegotiation in Durban risks unraveling balanced compromises already made," the authors of this week's letter to Clinton wrote, "and could foreclose agreement on a workable governing instrument."
Meanwhile, the U.S. negotiating team this week has also flatly refused to even discuss various ideas for getting money into the fund, including separate proposals put forth by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the Gates Foundation. Among the more prominent ideas: a carbon tax on international shipping and aviation.
Thus far, however, the U.S. team has refused to discuss any particulars -- a stance has Kevin Knobloch, the president of the Union of Concerned Scientists and one of the lead authors of the letter sent to Secretary Clinton this week, scratching his head. "It is perplexing that this would be the official U.S. negotiating posture," Knobloch said in a phone call with reporters on Wednesday, "given that we have an administration and a president who validate and emphasize that the science is very clear -- that we are rapidly heading toward deep trouble."
David Waskow, the climate change program manager for Oxfam America and a co-author of the letter, echoed Knobloch's concerns. "It's essential that the fund not be left empty," he said, "that we not create an empty vessel."
Todd Stern, the Obama administration's special envoy for climate change, said in an emailed statement that the U.S. remains committed to addressing global warming.
"Thanks in significant part to U.S. leadership, the Cancun agreements reached last year included commitments for the first time from all major economies, developed and developing alike, and principles for a system of transparency so that all countries can see whether others are meeting their commitments," Stern said, adding that the American delegation's focus in Durban was to build on these achievements. "There is of course much more to be done," he said, "but we have made an important start."
Critics of the U.S. negotiating posture, however, were well prepared with their own analysis, suggesting that Obama's negotiating team was simply bowing to pressure from congressional Republicans and climate skeptics at home who would surely flog the administration for compromising on a multibillion international fund when the U.S. economy is struggling.
That doesn't, however, explain the second major issue on which the U.S. has taken a hard stand in Durban: a mandate for all nations to begin negotiating a permanent and truly binding agreement on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, with a deadline for reaching such a pact by 2015.
The United States is insisting on a variety of preconditions before agreeing to such a mandate, including requiring major developing countries -- chiefly rising U.S. competitors like China and India -- to commit to emissions cuts of their own, as well as creating a clear process for other, less-developed countries to be bound eventually by emissions limits.
The U.S., and more recently, Canada, are among nations understandably concerned about hobbling their own economies with costly cuts in fossil fuel use while permitting the still-industrializing nations of the world to pollute with abandon. And even if they didn't help create the problem, U.S. negotiators argue, fast-growing economies like China and India will account for most of the planet's greenhouse gases going forward, and they ought not be left unfettered to do so.
The problem, critics argue, is that the U.S. is inexplicably placing the cart before the horse, insisting on the particulars of a climate pact before simply agreeing on a mandate to begin negotiating one by 2015, which is really all that's on the table in Durban. "It will clearly not be possible to reach consensus on these issues in Durban," the authors of the letter to Clinton state. "Insisting on their inclusion in a mandate sends the signal that the U.S. does not support such a mandate. This is a lost opportunity."
Whether it will remain so is unclear. The talks in Durban are scheduled to last through next Friday, and other issues are also at stake -- including an extension of the Kyoto Protocol, which is set to expire at the end of next year. The United States, of course, refused to sign-on to that carbon-cutting agreement, and at the moment, it appears unwilling to move the ball forward on other goals. That would leave reasonable people to wonder whether the Obama administration's early and eloquent assertions on global warming -- that it is a pressing, planet-wide issue, and that the U.S. intends to take a leadership role in addressing it -- were really just hot air.
"I have often quoted a Chinese proverb which says that when you are in a common boat, you have to cross the river peacefully together," Secretary of State Clinton told the gathering of climate delegates in Copenhagen three years ago -- words that advocates reminded her of in this week's letter. "Well, we are in a common boat," Clinton continued. "All of the major economies have an obligation to commit to meaningful mitigation actions and stand behind them in a transparent way. And all of us have an obligation to engage constructively and creatively toward a workable solution. We need to avoid negotiating approaches that undermine rather than advance progress toward our objective."
Durban could still produce meaningful agreements, the advocates said, but only if the American delegation lives up to the standards Clinton herself set. "We hope and trust," they wrote, "that it will."
This post has been updated to include comments from the U.S. Department of State.