Last winter, President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton rescued high-profile international climate negotiations in Copenhagen from total failure. Buoyed by House passage of a comprehensive climate bill, Mr. Obama promised that the United States would cut its greenhouse emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, and he committed the United States to assist developing countries in adapting to global warming and greening their economies. Other major polluters also committed to explicit emissions reductions and offered foreign aid. China and other developing nations gave ground on international monitoring, reporting and verification of their carbon-cutting efforts - critical to any solution to this global problem.
Then the Senate failed to pass a climate bill, dissipating any post-Copenhagen hope that America would lead on climate change. An incoming Republican House majority is filled with global warming skeptics. Some newly empowered lawmakers appear determined to hinder even executive actions such as Environmental Protection Agency regulation. Congress is less likely to provide funding for the foreign aid Obama promised. As representatives of 193 countries gather in Cancun, Mexico, this week for another negotiating session, the past year's news makes the rest of the world yet more guarded about the prospects for U.S. action.
U.S. officials insist that America isn't retreating from the commitments it made in Copenhagen, even its 2020 greenhouse gas target. There are various ways to reach the goal, they say, perhaps including a mix of less ambitious legislation and executive regulation of large emitters, such as coal-fired power plants, under the Clean Air Act. Still, other nations have reason for skepticism, and negotiations in Cancun aren't likely to produce big agreements.
Still, the meeting could make progress in establishing a coherent international program to slow deforestation; designing and funding international green finance mechanisms; and creating a system to share green technology. Along with that should come progress on international transparency, accounting for how much carbon large emitters - particularly big, growing economies such as China and India - are producing and how well they are meeting their international commitments. As a matter of policy, such transparency is needed no matter what Congress does. As a matter of politics, though, U.S. special climate envoy Todd Stern won't be in a strong position to push for it.