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Obama Adviser Signals White House Giving Up on Climate Change Treaty

Is Copenhagen Dead?

David Corn

The sun sets above a cement factory in Sai Son village, outside Hanoi September 23, 2009. A summit of world leaders has dimmed hopes for a strong new U.N. climate pact to replace the Kyoto Protocol in Copenhagen in December, with details looking ever more likely to be left for sometime in the future. REUTERS/Kham

Is the Obama administration giving up on reaching a comprehensive international climate change agreement this year? A statement
released on Friday by John Podesta, who headed Barack Obama's
presidential transition, is a big hint that the White House is looking
to dramatically downplay expectations.

In the statement, Podesta, the head of the Center for American
Progress, and Rajendra Pachaur
i, the chair of the UN's
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, declare, "The world's
leading economic powers remain inactive in preventing an increase in
the serious impacts of climate change." The pair do not explicitly
criticize the United States and the Obama administration. But their
statement suggests that the Obama administration has not succeeded in
leading the major global powers toward effective action:

While current impacts of climate change may not have reached
alarming proportions, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on
Climate Change, that will happen soon enough if we do not take early
action. What is causing increasing concern, as the December UN climate
summit in Copenhagen draws ever nearer, is the continuing deadlock in
political action to deal with this challenge.

Podesta and Pachauri note that the commitment reached last July by
G-8 countries-including the United States-to reduce global greenhouse
emissions by 50 percent by 2050 is not sufficient and that the ongoing
negotiations in advance of the Copenhagen conference do not "reflect
this imperative."

The two paint a bleak picture of the road to Copenhagen:


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The interim U.N. meetings over the summer leading up to Copenhagen
have not gone well. Still unresolved are fundamental differences
between developed countries about whether the Kyoto Protocol should be
continued or be abandoned altogether for an entirely new treaty. The
document under discussion at the U.N. is some 200 pages of
contradictory provisions from a variety of submissions from different
countries. Practically every sentence contains bracketed language still
needing debate and revision. The prospect of shaping this up into a
coherent document by December, with only two more interim meetings to
go, appears grim.

They conclude that the negotiations have reached an impasse, with
the developing and developed countries disagreeing about how far each
side should go to reduce emissions: "While it is true that developed
countries carry the burden of historical responsibility, and must prove
to be the first movers in mitigation, developing countries will become
bigger emitters in the future; this intractable dynamic is proving

Looking for "a more positive track," Podesta and Pachauri urge the
G-20 countries meeting in Pittsburgh-nations that together produce 80
percent of global warming emissions-"to focus on a series of
mini-agreements that could be reached at or before Copenhagen." Their
wish list includes measures that set-up multilateral collaborations to
develop low-carbon technologies and that create financing arrangements
to assist developing countries in meeting energy-efficiency goals and
in slowing deforestation.

For enviros holding out hope for Copenhagen, the Podesta-Pachauri
statement is a major downer. The two are dramatically depressing
expectations-and plotting out an alternative track to the Copenhagen
process. What makes Podesta's pessimism especially noteworthy is that
for years he was a mentor to Todd Stern,
who is now the senior US negotiator for Copenhagen. The two are close
friends, and it is unlikely-make that, unimaginable-that Podesta, an
experienced political player in Washington (who was a chief of staff
for President Clinton), would express such a discouraging position on
Copenhagen without consulting Stern.

Given that Podesta is quite well-informed on these matters, this
appears to be a strong signal that the Obama administration-as the Senate puts off acting
on climate change legislation-is giving up on achieving any grand
accord to redress climate change this December. It's a stinging vote of
no confidence in Copenhagen-and a sign that Obama administration
officials, believing they cannot steer the nations of the world toward
a meaningful treaty, are looking for a Plan B.

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