U.S. weighs backing interim international climate agreement
Smaller-scale approach seen as first step toward full pact

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.

Growing frustration

Any deal coming out of Copenhagen that includes the meaningful participation of China and India could bolster the chances of passing a Senate bill, because these lawmakers do not want to ask Americans to sacrifice without assurances that economic competitors will do so as well. But an underwhelming outcome at the U.N. talks could sour senators on a broader agreement.

While European leaders say they understand Obama's predicament -- Maud Olofsson, Sweden's minister of enterprise and energy, said he is "in a difficult situation" -- negotiators from poorer nations have expressed growing frustration with the U.S. position. Last week in Barcelona, representatives from African nations threatened to stop negotiating there unless the group focused on what sort of specific greenhouse emissions cuts richer countries are willing to make.

Daniel M. Price, who served as international economics adviser in the Bush White House, said the nation's international negotiating stance has not changed as much under Obama as some might think. "There's very little difference between the negotiating objectives of the United States that were put forward by the Bush administration and those that are now being put forward by the Obama administration," Price said Tuesday during a panel discussion sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations.

Stern said the United States backs an agreement with emissions targets "that are derived from our own domestic laws and regulations and that would be a strong, binding system."

But Environmental Defense Fund President Fred Krupp, who also met with Obama's climate deputies, said negotiators must ensure the "building blocks" in this new system will translate into binding carbon cuts across the board. "You've got to have caps on the total global warming pollution of all the major emitting sectors in all the major emitting countries," Krupp said.

Staff writers Glenn Kessler and Michael D. Shear contributed to this report.

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