U.S. plays conflicted role in global climate debate

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 1, 2010; 8:40 AM

As the next round of U.N. climate talks approaches this month in Cancun, Mexico, the Obama administration finds itself in an awkward position: pushing its enduring commitment to bold climate action even as the prospects for comprehensive legislation have evaporated at home.

The atmosphere is very different from a year ago, when U.S. negotiators headed to Copenhagen touting the recent success of a House-passed climate bill. Now that legislation has died in the Senate, and with candidates poised to win this week who are more likely to focus on immediate economic concerns than on long-term environmental and energy ones, these constraints are shaping U.S. climate diplomacy.

Administration officials might not be able to deliver on all the climate assistance they have promised to give poor countries by 2012 and have questioned some financing proposals linked to longer-term foreign aid. They are considering whether to challenge China's renewable energy subsidies as violating international trade rules, and have objected to Europe's plan to force airlines operating there to pay for their carbon emissions.

"The U.S. is conflicted," said Angela Anderson, program director for the U.S. Climate Action Network.

Some foreign politicians deliver a harsher assessment. Reinhard Hans Bütikofer, a member of the European Parliament who co-chaired the German Green Party until last year, said in an interview, "The yardstick I would measure the Obama administration against has been set by the president himself, when he said in the early days of his administration he wanted to make the United States a leader in international climate policy. That is obviously a test in which the U.S. is failing, by far."

As delegates from around the world wait to see whether negotiations starting Nov. 29 in Cancun produce a meaningful result, U.S. special climate envoy Todd Stern made it clear that the United States intends to pursue as hard a bargain as it did last year in Copenhagen. As part of the Copenhagen Accord, industrialized nations pledged to make greenhouse gas cuts and give billions to poor countries over the next decade, in exchange for major developing countries agreeing to make their cuts in a transparent way, where other countries could monitor and verify their carbon emissions.

"I don't accept the notion that because we didn't get our legislation passed, therefore we should show flexibility on transparency. There's no linkage," Stern said in an interview. "We're not playing that way."

But Connie Hedegaard, the European commissioner for climate action, said other countries are using U.S. lawmakers' refusal to adopt binding limits on carbon dioxide to back away from the Copenhagen Accord, the deal forged in last year's U.N. talks.

"Of course, from a European perspective it's regrettable the administration could not get legislation through the Senate," she said. "That makes it easier for other parties to hide behind the back of the United States."

Foreign aid in doubt

Last year, administration officials assumed that a plan to cap U.S. greenhouse gases and allow emitters to trade carbon allowances would help funnel millions to developing countries for climate projects such as preserving tropical forests; now that approach is politically dead. And even the administration's ability to provide direct climate assistance to poor nations over the next two years is in doubt because a looming budget battle with Republicans could freeze U.S. foreign aid at this year's levels, or even cut it.

"That's something people I talk to in other capitals are very aware of," said Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists, an advocacy group.

In a preliminary U.N. climate meeting in Tianjin, China, last month, Chinese negotiators questioned whether industrialized nations such as the United States would come through on their promises for international climate aid. And the two nations are on the brink of a trade fight over renewable energy: Last month, the Obama administration said it would investigate whether the United Steelworkers union was justified in charging that China's clean-energy subsidies violated international trade rules.

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."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company