President Obama will almost certainly not travel to the Copenhagen climate change summit in December and may instead use his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech to set out US environmental goals, The Times has learnt.
With healthcare reform clogging his domestic agenda and no prospect of a comprehensive climate treaty in Copenhagen, Mr Obama may disappoint campaigners and foreign leaders, including Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband, who have urged him to attend to boost the hopes of a breakthrough.
The White House would not comment on Mr Obama's travel plans yesterday, but administration officials have said privately that "Oslo is plenty close" - a reference to the Nobel ceremony that falls on December 10, two days into the Copenhagen meeting.
The White House confirmed that the President would be in Oslo to accept the prize, but a source close to the Administration said it was "hard to see the benefit" of his going to Copenhagen if there was no comprehensive deal for him to close or sign. Another expert, who did not want to be named, said he would be "really, really shocked" if Mr Obama went to Copenhagen, adding that European hopes about the power of his Administration to transform the climate change debate in a matter of months bore little relation to reality. The comprehensive climate change treaty that for years has been the goal of the Copenhagen conference was now an "unrealistic" prospect, Yvo de Boer, the UN official guiding the process, said last week.
Chinese and Indian resistance to mandatory carbon emission limits has so far proved an insurmountable obstacle to crafting a successor to the Kyoto Protocol that is acceptable to the US. America has also slowed the process through its reluctance to accept climate change science or the carbon cap-and-trade mechanism to combat global warming.
Only 57 per cent of Americans believe that there is strong evidence that the world has grown warmer in recent decades, down from 71 per cent a year ago, according to a new poll. Partly as a result, the White House is having to wage a vote-by-vote battle in Congress for a climate change Bill that would embrace cap-and-trade. The Bill will not be signed into law until next year at the earliest but is considered essential for any global deal.
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Mr Obama flew to Boston yesterday to make the case for a wholesale American switch to clean energy, and to launch a six-week drive to persuade the world that the US is at last serious about joining international efforts to combat climate change.
He will have his work cut out. As a presidential candidate, he held out the hope of signing a cap-and-trade Bill in time for Copenhagen. Since then, a deep recession and months of delays on healthcare reform have pushed climate change into third place on the domestic US agenda, after financial regulatory reform. That reform is seen as essential for cap-and-trade because of the need to rebuild trust in complex financial instruments after "an incredible nativist backlash against new markets" caused by the banking crisis, according to Paul Bledsoe, a former White House official at the National Commission on Energy Policy.
For Mr Obama to travel to Copenhagen would be "completely out of keeping" with the American political climate and with precedent, Mr Bledsoe said. The most senior White House official to attend a past UN climate conference was Vice-President Al Gore in 1997. He signed the Kyoto Protocol, but the failure by Congress to ratify it since has been a defining theme of a decade of climate change talks.
In Mr Obama's absence, the US delegation will be led by Todd Stern, the Administration's special envoy on climate change. Analysts believe Hillary Clinton, the Secretary of State, could fly in at the last moment, but as one analyst said of both Mrs Clinton and Vice-President Joe Biden: "They only want to be associated with success, not failure."
The gap between hopes of what Mr Obama can do and reality was on show this week when another Nobel Peace Prize winner, Rajendra Pachauri of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said he thought the President should be doing more. Instead, the Obama Administration is seeking to lower expectations before Copenhagen by drawing attention to its short tenure in office, the long years of US foot-dragging on climate change under his predecessor and recent progress on domestic climate change legislation.