President Obama leaves for stalemated climate talks in Copenhagen today facing global expectations that he can salvage an agreement on greenhouse gases as well as heavy domestic pressure not to sign a deal that could kill American jobs.
Obama will join more than 110 world leaders, who, barring a major breakthrough, will convene Friday with many of their core issues apparently unresolved and persistent rifts between wealthy nations and the developing world.
Chaotic scenes from the summit, where police and protesters clashed in the streets Wednesday, belie the glacial pace of the negotiations that began last week. Rich, industrialized countries continue to insist that any agreement must make it clear that emerging nations such as China and India will limit their carbon dioxide emissions as their economies grow.
Developing nations are calling for deeper reductions in emissions and increased financial assistance from the developed world.
The stakes are high, even though Obama and other leaders are aiming only for a framework agreement that would not be legally binding.
Failure would undercut hopes for a complete and binding global climate treaty next year; imperil climate legislation in Congress, a top priority for the Democrats; and handicap Obama’s efforts to reshape the world’s view of the United States.
The president will arrive with more power to make or break an accord than any other world leader. Publicly and privately, top American negotiators remain confident that the outlines of an agreement are visible and that a deal can be struck.
But perhaps more than any of his fellow heads of government, Obama’s efforts will be complicated by the competing demands of a world that expects him to deliver on pledges to lead the way to climate action and a nation increasingly anxious about its fragile economy.
It is a challenge Obama embraced in his run to the White House and elevated to a top priority upon election. Now leaders and advocates here say the climate conference is looking to him to turn rhetoric into reality.
“It’s clear from what we’ve seen in the last week that these negotiations are yearning for leadership,” said Lou Leonard, U.S. international climate policy affairs director for the World Wildlife Fund.
“The timing is perfect for the president,” he said. “We’re not going to get another moment like this for a long time.”
Democrats have sensed diplomatic opportunity in climate policy since President George W. Bush’s first term, when they drew a connection between Bush’s refusal to engage in serious climate talks and his inability to coax many allies into making large troop commitments to the Iraq war.
Bush’s “slapdash retreat from [international climate talks] created a kind of indelible impression of him” among other nations, said Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), who attacked Bush on climate issues in the 2004 presidential election. “And that stayed with him through all the efforts of his presidency.”
Obama embraced that theme in his 2008 campaign, along with the idea that making a transition from fossil fuels would boost the economy.
Soon after taking office, Obama gathered a team of advisors in Washington to sketch a framework for the massive economic stimulus bill that would be his first major legislative priority.
There were discussions on not just how to create jobs, but how to tilt the nation’s energy course by boosting wind and solar power, building transmission lines to deliver renewable energy to urban centers and improving the efficiency of the electricity grid.
The package ended up including $80 billion for so-called clean energy and included the emission limits for cars and trucks and the reorientation of several Cabinet agencies around clean energy.
The president broached the coming climate negotiations in nearly every one-on-one meeting with a world leader over the last year, administration officials say. In speeches, he called for a new climate accord, and he convened a group of major greenhouse gas emitters to seek common ground.
But Obama won’t be arriving in Copenhagen with all the bargaining chips he wanted; in particular, he doesn’t have a completed climate bill. That legislation has stalled in the Senate as moderates in both parties raise concerns over its potential to raise energy prices and hurt the economy, and legislators have spent a great deal of time grappling with healthcare reform.
A Gallup Poll released Wednesday shows that a majority of Americans would support Obama on a climate pact. But the poll also shows that 85% of the respondents want the economy, not global warming, to be the president’s focus.
Domestic politics also mean that Obama cannot give in to China’s and India’s demands that their emission reduction commitments be left out of an agreement entirely; key Rust Belt senators warn that such an imbalance could give Chinese and Indian manufacturers a competitive advantage if the U.S. adopts emission cuts.
Nevertheless, activists and diplomats in Copenhagen say Obama could help break the negotiating impasse, particularly if he commits to a dollar figure on a financial aid package shared by wealthy nations to help developing ones, aimed at getting the poorer countries to adapt to climate change and switch to low-emission energy sources.
More than anything, the Copenhagen participants say, Obama must tell world leaders that he will push hard for a climate bill in the spring, in time to have a law in place for a potential follow-up summit six months from now and in spite of the economic concerns that are racking the U.S. and weakening Democratic politicians in the polls.
“Despite the procedural roller-coaster ride here this week, the Copenhagen climate summit can still meet this test” and reach agreement, said Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists, “but only if President Obama and other leaders provide real leadership.”