Reading a recent article highlighting Sen. James Inhofe’s now-international obstructionism on efforts to stem climate change, I was struck by how eventful and dramatic the last few months have been for folks who have been paying attention and are holding their breath for actual progress at the Copenhagen Conference of Parties.
Beginning back in mid-November many of us were shocked when national news outlets casually threw out the dour headline “So much for Hopenhagen,” effectively calling off the push for a binding international agreement while at the conference. This occurred while Obama was in Asia, meeting several heads of state, notably China, who’s plans don’t really include actual, binding emissions reductions, only a GDP-based “carbon intensity.” Any forward momentum was killed after a UN official announced the end of a realistic expectation of a binding agreement while the leaders were gathered together at a “hastily arranged breakfast.”
I was heart-broken. I had hoped to witness history at Copenhagen, possibly one of the few chances in recent memory (2008’s Obama/Yes We Can bandwagon remains TBD) where there was a chance to get a significant positive change. As the friends and peers who will accompany me to Copenhagen next week continued to shoot off email after email with new developments about the conference, its attendees and agenda, I began to realize that the mid-November derailment was only the beginning of a tumultuous 3 weeks before anyone actually rolled up his sleeves and began diplomatifying.
The news continues on through this week. Of course, the two main developments this past week included the announcement of a hard committment by President Obama to “roughly” a 17% reduction in emissions by 2020 (actually a 3% reduction from 1990 levels) and 83% by 2050. The other was Obama’s committment to attend the event. The numbers that Obama gave are the same levels that were contained in the recently passed house climate bill. Unfortunately, these numbers, while a good sign, were what touched off another political firestorm between Obama, Kerry and Boxer in one corner and Sen. James Inhofe in the other. Sen. Boxer pushed a vote through the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which she chairs, with no Republicans even in the room and a ‘nay’ vote from the one coal-state Democrat, Sen. Max Baucus. Many regarded this as the death knell of the legislation, with Inhofe gloating about the victory and his opportunity to stand up against Kerry and Boxer at Copenhagen and say “”No, it’s over. Get a life. You lost. I won.” Of course, Sen. Inhofe is banking on his word carrying more weight than the President’s, several senator’s and seven members of Obama’s cabinet. It certainly makes for sensationalist news, but as more details of the Administration’s plans while at the Conference, the better I feel about Obama’s thus-far less than fervent committment to the issue.
The second development, that of Obama’s actual decision to attend at some point, has long been expected, although several details leave cause for concern. First is the timing of the visit. He plans to show up at the Conference only a few days in. This is undoubtedly designed to coincide with his travels to Oslo, which is just a few miles north of Copenhagen. Would he have attended if he wasn’t going to already be in the neighborhood? No way to tell, but the timing smacks of opportunism, or at least a lost chance to make a significant impact on the negotiation process. It also leaves him without any real opportunity to confer with the other attending world leaders, who will be arriving later in the second week to shore up and authorize committments and deal with the last stretch of negotiations. Some is better than none, but a longer, and better timed visit would undoubtedly add heft to an already dubious sense of U.S. committment.
While I remain nervous going in to the last week before the Conference, the high drama on both the national and international levels and the rate at which significant changes are occurring leave room for further improvement in the United States’ dedication to finally integrating itself with a true international convention on climate change.