Transition's Timing Hits Climate Talks

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 8, 2008

Barack Obama's pledge to make the United States a leader in confronting global warming raised hopes that his election would rapidly end the long impasse in international negotiations over climate change, but the timing of the presidential transition has severely dimmed those expectations as the current round of talks comes to a head this week in Poland.

The U.S. delegates still report to President Bush, and they made it clear last week that they will not commit to specific reductions in greenhouse gas emissions that would bind the incoming administration. Obama, meanwhile, has hewed to his one-president-at-a-time policy and declined to send his representatives to the Poznan meeting, as many had expected.

The result, a number of negotiators say, is that the world will have a hard time meeting the long-standing 2009 target for reaching a binding agreement on carbon emissions reductions to replace the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.

The delicate state of the global climate talks -- weighted down by the worldwide financial crisis -- highlights the challenges the negotiators face. The Bush administration and its allies successfully resisted setting specific climate goals during the past few negotiating rounds, and there are doubts that Obama can get Congress to approve a sufficiently ambitious national carbon cap by the time delegates meet again next December in Copenhagen. And without a U.S. commitment in place, other nations will be reluctant to sign a deal.

"A full, final, ratifiable agreement just isn't in the cards" next year, said Elliot Diringer, director of international strategies for the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. "It's really important to have realistic expectations going into Copenhagen, and then there's a chance of success."

Still, international officials hoping for action on climate change have been encouraged by Obama's election, especially in light of his videotaped message last month to a bipartisan group of governors that "once 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." The top U.N. negotiator said Friday that he remains confident that the United States could sign on to a global pact next year even without congressional action.

But in Europe, the question remains, "What is the U.S. administration going to do, and how are they going to act?" said Frederic Hauge, who heads the Norwegian environmental group Bellona and holds a key post on a European Commission panel pursuing zero-emissions power generation.

The answer to the question, however, is complicated.

Bush's delegation is headed by Paula J. Dobriansky, undersecretary of state for democracy and global affairs, and James L. Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

"Our agenda is to assure two outcomes," Connaughton said in a telephone interview last week before leaving for Poland. "One is a practical and comprehensive negotiating agenda and, as important, the establishment of an agenda of cooperative action, with the view of giving the next administration maximum flexibility."

The delegation's chief negotiator, Harlan L. Watson, told reporters last Monday that there are few differences between Bush and Obama in their approach to the talks, saying that Obama "has been relatively silent on the international aspects, with the logic being that the United States has to reach consensus domestically before we can bring that forward internationally."

One of the biggest obstacles facing negotiators has been the gulf between the United States and the European Union on the extent to which industrialized countries must reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to avert dangerous warming, and Obama's arrival goes only partway toward closing that divide. The European Union backs a goal of cutting emissions by 25 to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020; Obama has called for the United States simply to get back to 1990 levels; and Bush promised only to halt the rise of emissions by 2020, which could leave the United States nearly 30 percent above 1990 levels.

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