A global cooling to the U.S. position on climate change

When an energized U.S. delegation arrived in Copenhagen for world climate talks two years ago, environmentalists were encouraged by its willingness to tackle global warming.

In the months before Copenhagen, the House of Representatives had passed climate change legislation, and the new Obama administration had crafted an agreement with the auto industry to cut greenhouse gas emissions, the main contributor to global warming.

But now, halfway through a two-week round of climate talks in Durban, South Africa, that excitement has disappeared. Weakened by reversals in Congress and the ailing economy as a presidential election looms, the U.S. delegation has staked out a position that has confused and frustrated environmentalists and other nations.


Doubts have arisen about Washington’s willingness to cut emissions more substantially and its commitment to follow through on helping developing countries already battling climate change, people at the talks said.

The U.S. has shown up “empty-handed, with questions about whether it will be able to meet the emissions-reduction pledge President Obama put forward before Copenhagen,” said Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

“The question now is whether the U.S. will facilitate progress or block it,” said David Waskow, climate change program director at Oxfam America.

The administration and some allies have pushed back against the mounting criticism, pointing to new rules the U.S. adopted to cut auto emissions and progress at last year’s climate talks in Cancun, Mexico, to aid developing countries.

“The United States is committed to meeting the climate challenge,” said Todd Stern, U.S. special envoy for climate change. “Thanks in significant part to U.S. leadership, the Cancun agreements reached last year included commitments for the first time from all major economies, developed and developing alike, and principles for a system of transparency so that all countries can see whether others are meeting their commitments. There is, of course, much more to be done, but we have made an important start.”

As representatives from the nations of the world began meeting last week in Durban at the 17th United Nations Climate Change Conference, they were confronted with increasingly dire news.

Global temperatures in the last decade were the hottest ever recorded, and greenhouse gas emissions are at their highest levels, according to a report by the World Meteorological Organization. Without more aggressive efforts to reduce emissions, the world will miss the chance to keep the global average temperature from rising to more dangerous levels, the International Energy Agency recently said.

Many countries and environmentalists contend that the incremental, voluntary efforts championed by the U.S., China and other big emitters of greenhouse gases have proved inadequate in slowing climate change.

On Wednesday, the chief executives of 16 major environmental groups sent U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton a blunt letter asking that the United States abandon its negotiating positions.

“America risks being viewed not as a global leader on climate change but as a major obstacle to progress,” said the letter, whose signatories include the Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife and the Environmental Defense Fund. “U.S. positions on two major issues — the mandate for future negotiations and climate finance — threaten to impede in Durban the global cooperation so desperately needed to address the threat of climate change.”

Environmentalists and developing nations are pushing to begin talks that would eventually lead to the ratification of a legally binding worldwide agreement.

The only such agreement so far, the Kyoto Protocol, which was adopted in 1997 and went into effect in 2005, will expire at the end of next year. The protocol’s participants committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 5.2% below 1990 levels. The U.S. did not ratify the accord. The European Union did. EU members and many other nations would like to see the protocol extended as countries work to establish another agreement that would go past 2020.

The U.S. has a history of playing hardball at climate talks. But this time, participants are dismayed that the Obama administration insists on preconditions to negotiations for a legally binding agreement that major emitters such as China and India are unlikely to accept. For instance, Washington seeks unconditional commitments from developing countries to reduce emissions to certain levels, when it remains unclear whether they will get the financial or technological support to do so.

“I think the Americans are nervous that the Republicans are watching what they say and do,” Meyer said from Durban. “They are being very careful so that their position can’t be distorted and used against the president on this issue. That’s perhaps why they’re being more hard line.”

Under a nonbinding accord reached in Copenhagen, participants agreed to cut emissions based on voluntary targets in order to keep the global average temperature from rising 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2020. That temperature has risen almost 1 degree Celsius so far.

Some environmental analysts are more sympathetic to the Obama administration’s position.

“This obsession with a legally binding treaty is an obstacle for countries achieving targets they have committed to,” said Paul Bledsoe, a former spokesman for the White House Climate Change Task Force under President Clinton. “What we need is national will to reach stated goals.”