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U.S. plays conflicted role in global climate debate

The United States also has also joined Canada and Mexico in questioning whether the European Union has the right to start forcing foreign airlines flying to Europe in 2012 to pay for their carbon emissions as part of the E.U.'s carbon trading system without the "mutual agreement" of the countries where these operators originate.

A new dispute could flare up at the end of the week, when an international task force charged with showing how rich nations can mobilize $100 billion by 2020 for climate assistance will outline options for generating that money. Lawrence H. Summers, who chairs the White House National Economic Council, has served in the group and questioned some of the proposals, including imposing a new fee on some financial transactions.

Stern declined to comment in detail on the closed-door deliberations of the group. But he said, "There are some things that are proposed that we just don't think are good ideas."

U.S. stands by its word

The United States is not backing away from the pledge Obama made last year to cut the nation's overall emissions 17 percent compared with 2005 levels, although negotiators from developing countries have asked the administration to provide a more detailed accounting on how it will accomplish that goal. "I'd like the United States to put more on the table in terms of government performance on climate change," said Brazil's environment minister, Izabella Teixeira.

Stern said the United States has no plans to do that. "We're standing behind what we put in last year," he said. "If we don't get there through comprehensive legislation, there's other ways to get there."

Critics of the United States, such as Bolivia's U.N. ambassador, Pablo Solon, are already preparing to blame Washington for derailing the upcoming talks. "If the U.S. doesn't make any positive move before Cancun, and during Cancun, we will have a big failure in Cancun," he said. "We're going to see how politics in one state is going to define the entire future of humankind. And that's something we cannot accept."

But others, such as Norwegian Minister of the Environment and International Development Erik Solheim, said negotiators from all sides will have to recognize the current political realities in the United States and elsewhere, and strike the most meaningful compromise they can.

"The house cannot be built in one day," Solheim said. "The house has to be built floor by floor."

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