Was Copenhagen a success?

Network News

X Profile
View More Activity
Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Post asked experts whether the Copenhagen climate conference was a success. Below are contributions from Elliot Diringer, Kenneth Green, Fred Krupp, Christine Todd Whitman, Robert Shrum, John Kerry, Jim Inhofe and Douglas E. Schoen.

ELLIOT DIRINGER

Vice president for international strategies at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change; deputy assistant to the president and deputy White House press secretary in 2000

Copenhagen delivered both more and less than one could reasonably have hoped for.

On the one hand, the deal includes explicit emission pledges by all the major economies and a start on an international system to verify that developing countries are honoring theirs, two things we've never had before. Details need to be fleshed out. But this goes a long way toward assuring Congress that China and other big developing countries are prepared to act and be held accountable.

On the other hand, in setting a new negotiating deadline, governments were unable to agree that the objective would be a legally binding agreement. That's unfortunate, because what we ultimately need is a comprehensive treaty with fair and effective legal commitments by all the major economies. Hopefully that can be fixed in the next round.

The Copenhagen negotiation really started only 10 months ago, when President Obama took office. The president put forward all he reasonably could at this stage, including $3.6 billion in near-term assistance to developing countries to reduce emissions, preserve forests and adapt to climate change. He achieved some real progress.

But with climate legislation still pending in Congress, the United States wasn't in a position to put its best offers on the table, so other parties couldn't be expected to either. It's no surprise that some of the toughest issues still lie ahead.

KENNETH GREEN

Resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute

The outcome of the Copenhagen climate conference is unsurprising, as these events follow a familiar narrative that culminates with a superstar (in this case President Obama) leading a Herculean negotiating session that agrees on a mostly toothless paean to the principles of the Kyoto Protocol. In this case, the Copenhagen accord is particularly toothless, lacking either defined emission reduction targets or a defined timeline.

Those concerned about catastrophic climate change are angry at what they perceive to be insufficient greenhouse gas reduction targets for developed countries (particularly the United States) and insufficient commitments of wealth transfer from the developed to developing countries. Those who are not concerned about catastrophic climate change are angry at the reaffirmation of the Kyoto principles, which basically demand that developed countries commit economic suicide and pay guilt gelt to dictators, kleptocrats and tyrants of the worst sort.

Fortunately, what is outlined in the Copenhagen accord is unlikely to be enacted in liberal democracies, because governments that trash their own economies and tax their citizens for the benefit of corrupt regimes that hate everything liberal democracy stands for don't stay in office very long.

People concerned about catastrophic climate change need to get rid of the Kyoto albatross and start fresh to develop policies that protect against climate variability, whether man-made or natural, while preserving the benefits of democratic capitalist institutions.

FRED KRUPP

President, Environmental Defense Fund

The climate summit in Copenhagen represented an extraordinary investment by the world's leaders in the challenge of a generation. For some, expectations were stratospheric, and for them the incremental progress made in Denmark has tasted of defeat. But it's essential to pull back and consider the desperately needed progress we made.

The fundamentals of the game have changed. Copenhagen showed that we are tantalizingly close to realizing our goals for future generations; we have never been so close to having so many agree on so much. If anything was clear at the talks, it was that the world is waiting for the United States to act. When it does, President Obama will finally have what he needs to knit together the historic breakthroughs obscured by the end of the Copenhagen meeting. The coalition of the willing that supported the deal the United States and China worked out represents roughly 60 percent of the world's carbon emissions. It will undoubtedly be joined by others as "low-carbon" becomes the new term of engagement in the global economy.

A lot of hard work remains. But the positive steps taken -- many of them by developing countries that agreed to accountability measures, among other things -- present the U.S. Senate and Obama with a historic opportunity. When most pieces of a puzzle are in place, it's much easier to add the missing ones later.

CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN

Chair of the Republican Leadership Council; Environmental Protection Agency administrator from 2001 to 2003

The Copenhagen conference did not result in a legally binding global treaty, but that was a tall order that few realistically expected to achieve. It has always been hard to see how, without a hard carbon cap imposed in the United States, developing countries would sign such an agreement. Those nations have long suspected that the Kyoto Protocol was a feint by developed countries to keep those still developing from reaching economic parity.

Even so, the Copenhagen negotiators did leave with reasonable next steps to get closer to a treaty in the future. And, at the very least, President Obama's presence at the conference sent the message that the United States is engaged in the climate-change issue, a significant change from past years.

Still, sending those helpful signals abroad does not mean there will be any more appetite in the United States to deal with climate change. Obama is expending much of his political capital on health care, making it difficult for him to gain commitments on this equally controversial topic. There is reticence in Congress to impose a carbon tax, especially as we head into an election year, and few truly understand cap-and-trade, Copenhagen agreement or no.

ROBERT SHRUM

Democratic strategist and senior fellow at New York University's Wagner School of Public Service

The outcome in Copenhagen is the latest proof that on the big ones, it's a mistake to bet against Barack Obama. The primaries were Hillary Clinton's; the stimulus was mired down; the climate-change talks were deadlocked and all but dead. As before, the president claimed a last-minute win, marking a defining moment for both the climate issue and American diplomacy.

Failure at Copenhagen would have delayed progress on global warming for years or decades. Success, as measured as it was, gives Obama the momentum to push the energy bill in a recalcitrant Senate -- or to bypass that body if he has to. The Supreme Court has affirmed the Environmental Protection Agency's jurisdiction over greenhouse gases. If Congress won't legislate, as Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) said last week, the EPA will regulate. One way or another, a generation-long impasse on energy policy will end.

On the path to this landmark achievement, Obama in a few dramatic hours in Copenhagen also renewed the authority and appeal of American leadership on great global issues. This was not an exercise in speech-giving but in mastering and moving a seemingly intractable negotiation. Instead of stonewalling progress, the president made the decisive breakthrough -- risking his own credibility, persuading the Chinese face-to-face at the last minute, and defying the conventional wisdom that the diplomat in chief should leave the White House for the bargaining table only to sign a deal that's already struck.

The outcome was a victory for Obama, the country and the world. Not bad for an overnight flight and a long winter's twilight day in Scandinavia.

JOHN F. KERRY (D-Mass.)

Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee

History will record Copenhagen as the moment when America went from laggard to leader. After eight years of reluctantly relying on low-level emissaries, this year six Cabinet secretaries affirmed our commitment. On the critical issues of emission reductions, transparency and finance, our progress was groundbreaking. That it was the hands-on engagement of an American president that broke the deadlock marks a promising break with the past.

JIM INHOFE Ranking Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee

The failure of the U.N. climate conference in Copenhagen is no surprise. We have known for weeks that the outcome would fall well short of any form of legally binding international treaty that supporters say is necessary. The product out of Copenhagen provides no binding agreement, no new targets or timelines, and no way to verify or enforce emission cuts. Most of the major issues that have plagued any U.N. global warming treaty for over a decade remain today.

This "agreement" will do nothing to change the overwhelming bipartisan opposition to global-warming legislation in the Senate. While in Copenhagen, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), the author of two different global-warming approaches, acknowledged that without a solid deal, it would be "exceedingly difficult" to persuade lawmakers to get on board with any form of global-warming legislation. In fact, the Obama administration's new pledge to hand over billions of American tax dollars to developing nations will only further undercut the president's push to enact costly cap-and-trade legislation.

As The Post reported the morning of the president's speech in Copenhagen, public support for his global-warming policies continues to crumble, now dropping below 50 percent. With unemployment at 10 percent, we should be seeking an energy policy that utilizes our domestic resources, creates American jobs and ensures affordable energy. That is the responsible path forward.

DOUGLAS E. SCHOEN

Democratic pollster and author

With the ink not yet dry on the climate-change agreement the United States brokered in Copenhagen, the Obama administration is taking justifiable pride in having achieved at least one clear accomplishment. Political benefits will accrue in the short term because of Americans' general desire to reduce carbon emissions and to protect our environment. There could, however, be significant political costs to President Obama and the Democrats in the midterm elections and beyond.

There is still no consensus in the United States that we should pass a cap-and-trade bill. In fact, the most recent political calculus suggests that cap-and-trade will not pass the Senate, and American voters, particularly swing voters, are deeply skeptical of any undertaking that could potentially raise energy costs or taxes. Copenhagen might make this even more difficult for Obama because he runs the risk of appearing to follow the lead of the international community rather than providing leadership, particularly in light of the $100 billion figure that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton floated on behalf of the developed world for developing nations.

The idea of committing what could well be tens of billions of dollars from hard-pressed taxpayers to foreign governments will be a potent political issue for Republicans in 2010. There is at least as much risk as reward for Obama in the negotiations that just concluded.


More Washington Post Opinions

PostPartisan

Post Partisan

Quick takes from The Post's opinion writers.

Washington Sketch

Washington Sketch

Dana Milbank writes about political theater in the capital.

Tom Toles

Tom Toles

See his latest editorial cartoon.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company

Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity