03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Copenhagen Blues: Obama's Weak Hand on Climate, and the California Option

As he prepares to go to Copenhagen for the deeply troubled UN climate change summit, President Barack Obama does so with a weak hand. He has no enacted legislation to brandish, no binding agreements on big greenhouse gas cuts with some of the biggest polluters, and no big financing to aid the developing world of poorer nations.

Aside from that, it's really great.

In his first address to the United Nations as commander-in-chief this past September, President Barack Obama addressed the pressing issue of climate change.

Obama has cobbled together some impressive-looking cards. But starting from the zero point that was bequeathed him by the Bush/Cheney Administration, and with far less congressional support than many imagine, he's nowhere near ready to sign a new Copenhagen Protocol, were one to emerge, which it will not. However, having secured some movement on climate through his recent direct diplomacy with China and India, and with some action in the US, in the form of a bill that has passed the House, EPA moves cutting tailpipe emissions and declaring greenhouse gases a threat to public welfare and granting California its customary right under the Clean Air Act to regulate air pollutants, in this case greenhouse gases, he has a hand that at least consists of some respectable-looking cards.

Let's look at the cards the president does, and does not, have.

** There has been no new legislation enacted. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Obama's strongest and most effective ally, working with LA Congressman Henry Waxman, got the House to barely pass a climate change bill to cut greenhouse gas emissions through a combination of regulation and a cap and trade market.

** His pending legislation falls far short of the cuts that most experts say are needed. Pelosi could barely get a bill passed to cut greenhouse gases by 17% from 2005 levels. But the international standard is based on 1990. And by that standard, the bill is only a 4% cut.

** He doesn't have, as yet, a big financing/technology package for poor nations to aid them in transitioning to greentech and dealing with likely climate impacts. Though Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says America will be part of a big financing package if others agree. And if others agree to have their cuts verified.

** He doesn't have binding, verifiable agreements with rising powers China and India to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

U.N. climate talks deadlocked Wednesday, two days before global leaders hoped to sign an agreement. Police confronted protesters outside the Copenhagen conference venue with pepper spray and batons.

** He does have new agreements from China and India to cut "carbon intensity" in fuels and other products, secured during his supposedly unsuccessful tour of China and other Asian nations and his overlooked Washington summit last month with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. (The silly White House gatecrashers got all the attention.)

** He does have an Environmental Protection Agency decision (based on last year's Supreme Court ruling) that greenhouse gases are a threat to public health, rendering them worthy of regulation by EPA under the Clean Air Act.

** He does have new, stricter standards on vehicle fuel efficiency, based on California standards that were blocked by the Bush/Cheney Administration. (That was a 2002 law signed by then Governor Gray Davis in the face of threats by the auto industry to overturn it at the ballot box. Detroit backed down.)

** He does have a new energy policy, based on the energy efficiency/renewables path pioneered in California by Jerry Brown in the 1970s and 1980s.

** He does have the landmark California plan, enacted in 2006, to cut greenhouse gas emissions. The Bush/Cheney Administration blocked it, despite protests from Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and legal action by former Governor-turned-Attorney General Brown. But the new EPA recognizes California's historic ability to take action under the Clean Air Act. And under the Clean Air Act, other states may follow California's lead, as they have done in the past. Which in this instance can create a program covering most of America, including a de facto national cap and trade market in greenhouse gas emissions.

Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets of Copenhagen last Saturday demanding that world leaders take stronger action to fight climate change. This came at the mid-point of the United Nations Global Climate Conference.

Meanwhile, the talks in Copenhagen are in big trouble on a few fundamental points. The trouble is so big that Copenhagen looks destined to be, at best, an interim event, perhaps pointing to further negotiations next year in Mexico City.

The Copenhagen dilemma turns on a few key points.

** Industrialized nations are under pressure to cut back even more on greenhouse gases than they have offered.

** Still developing countries, including giants China and India, have to aggressively cut the growth in emissions, rather than merely reduce carbon intensity. But there is resistance.

** Developing nations need financing and technological assistance to make the leap to green tech, cut emissions, and prepare for the impacts of climate change. The rich nations are talking about a "prompt-start" plan of $10 billion a year for three years. Experts say the funding will be needed for many years, and that $10 billion is a drop in the bucket. Or, in this case, a drop in the rising seas.

And the reality is that European leaders, after much prior hoopla, have only come up with a distinctly underwhelming $3.6 billion a year -- only a third of what was originally planned by the EU -- to help poor nations reduce greenhouse gas emissions and prepare for climate change.

** America and other developed nations want technical verification of emissions actions by developing nations. But China resists that, saying it's a violation of its sovereignty.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger addressed the U.N. climate summit on Tuesday in Copenhagen, arguing that action at the subnational level can do much.

Against this wonderful backdrop, Obama, based on what Pelosi and Waxman were able to get through the House with a bare one vote majority, has offered to cut US emissions by 4% from 1990 levels by 2020. The European Union has committed to a 20% cut from 1990 levels.

It's hard to see how this works on the current track, at least in the near term. Politically speaking, there is a big bandwidth problem, especially for the Senate, which agonizes over legislation for months on end.

Despite an optimistic statement today from Senator John Kerry, it's hard to see how the Senate passes a bill in 2010, an election year, that barely passed the House this year. Remember that the Pelosi-led House passed national health care reform, with the public option, earlier this year, while the Senate is still struggling to pass national health care reform without the public option.

And most experts say that the barely passed House bill is clearly insufficient to meet the challenge of climate change.

Which leaves two options. Do it all by top-down regulation through the EPA, a less flexible cudgel perhaps best used to gain future passage of legislation. (Big moves through the EPA alone hands the Republicans a club about "unelected bureaucrats.") Or use the EPA to do some regulations and encourage other states, big and small, to follow the California plan, which is highly praised by the UN, which states have done before on other air pollution issues.

You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes ...