U.S. considers backing interim international climate agreement

By Juliet Eilperin
Friday, November 13, 2009

Less than a month before negotiators will meet in Copenhagen with the lofty goal of crafting a deal to curb global greenhouse gas emissions, the Obama administration is considering endorsing a limited short-term climate pact and deferring more ambitious action until next year.

The scaled-back strategy is driven largely by the realities of domestic politics: The administration is hampered in making an international deal because Congress has not passed climate legislation. So any global pact would be postponed until next year when it would be constrained by whatever domestic climate legislation Congress enacts.

Backing an interim agreement -- which would fall far short of what many European and developing nations envisioned when President Obama took office -- would be an attempt to keep the U.N.-sponsored talks from being viewed a failure, say administration and congressional officials.

They emphasize that the trimmed-back approach should not be viewed as a withdrawal of U.S. commitment, but rather as a first step: "An interim, operational deal is not meant to be seen as a substitute for a real agreement," Todd Stern, the U.S. special envoy on climate change, said in an interview. "It's meant to be seen as substantive building blocks to a full, legal agreement, and perhaps the best chance of getting such an agreement."

At the heart of the interim pact, first outlined in a speech last month by Danish Prime Minister Lars Loekke Rasmussen, are "political commitments" from key nations outlining their targets to reduce their own greenhouse gas emissions as well as the amount of money richer countries will spend to help developing nations adapt to global warming and curb their own emissions. Such an approach could provide the incentive for major developing economies such as China and India -- both of whose leaders Obama will meet this month -- to sign onto an international climate agreement, according to experts.

'Ground to make up'

Leaders of the European Union, U.S. environmental groups and developing nations have pushed for a binding treaty that would spell out exactly how much nations would cut their greenhouse gas emissions in the next decade and the mechanism for distributing money to developing countries. But many accept that is no longer possible now that the Senate will not vote on a climate bill this year.

"We have so much ground to make up, simply punting at Copenhagen is a terrible lost opportunity," said Kevin Knobloch, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists, one of several environmental leaders who met with Stern and other top U.S. climate officials this week. "To the extent we can build a framework and even some of the elements that lead us to a final treaty in six months or less, that's essential."

Obama spoke this month to a European diplomat, who asked not to be identified because of the ongoing negotiations, about the need to ensure that a scaled-back agreement in Copenhagen is still viewed as a success. The diplomat said Obama assured him that he is seeking a bill from Congress that would spur significant reductions in emissions.

Obama is navigating the "tension" of simultaneously addressing the U.S. and international audience on climate change, former vice president Al Gore said in a recent interview.

"The disappointment in the world community that would accompany a failure of Copenhagen, if it were laid at the doorstep of the United States, would be significant," Gore said. "I'm optimistic that they will handle Copenhagen well. What's important is that what emerges from Copenhagen is perceived as an important step forward."

Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) said Tuesday that he is still trying to provide negotiators with "a sign of political commitment on the part of the United States" by issuing a draft in the next few weeks of the climate bill he is writing with Sens. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.). But while it might help the administration identify what the Senate backs in terms of a climate pact, Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) said the administration shouldn't "over-promise" in Copenhagen.

"The question of what our emissions targets and reductions timetable will be, I think it's pretty hard for them to know what that will be, because we do not yet know what that will be," he said.

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