Obama starts to look like a climate peacemaker

President Obama’s personal engagement in the UN climate talks in Copenhagen last week, and his success at securing a significant if imperfect agreement among the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitters, may have put him on a path to realize the promise expected of him when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In 15 hours of high stakes diplomacy, the president confronted the unwieldy UN negotiating process and managed to extract a deal that could lead to meaningful emission reductions while streamlining the way future talks are conducted.

Instead of trying to get all 190 participating nations to agree to a binding treaty – an admirable but unrealistic goal – Obama convened a small group of countries (U.S., China, India, Brazil, and South Africa, with Europeans nearby) that had already made pledges to cut GHGs to varying degrees depending on their stage of economic development. By working with this influential group of countries and insisting on tough procedures for verifying emission reductions, the president has reconstituted the world order for dealing with the most complex diplomatic challenge of our time. If the new framework succeeds – and we won’t know for a decade or more if the new approach delivers the necessary emission reductions – history could view Obama’s intervention in Copenhagen as a peacemaking step that helped save the planet.

Critics in the developing world and representatives of some environmental groups have already called Copenhagen a failure and lambasted Obama for not producing more commitments. But given the acrimony that prevailed between industrialized and developing countries during the two weeks of UN talks, it was unreasonable to think that Obama could arrive and immediately get everyone on his side. The U.S. Senate’s inaction on climate legislation gave the president a weak negotiating position from which to make his pledges. Obama was not going to repeat the mistake President Clinton made in 1997 when he authorized the U.S. delegation to sign the Kyoto Protocol even though he knew the Senate would never ratify it.

In Copenhagen, the best Obama could do was to highlight the Administration’s executive orders on fuel economy standards, its investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency, and the House of Representative’s passage of the Waxman-Markey energy/climate bill. Those signs of progress – along with the announcement by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that the U.S. would help raise $100 billion per year in climate change related financing for developing countries by 2020 – gave the president new credibility to negotiate with other leaders.

In his meeting with Chinese Premier Wen Jibao, Obama reportedly invoked the famous “trust but verify” line Reagan used with Gorbachev during nuclear arms talks – applied in this case to emission reductions. Verification is a particularly contentious issue for the Chinese who don’t want foreign monitors inside their country. Obama persisted and secured concessions that the Chinese would accept some level of international reporting.

As the final hours of talks in Copenhagen wound down, there was still no agreement and the possibility of total collapse loomed large. Obama and the other 110 heads of state in attendance could have gone home empty-handed. For NGOs and policy experts watching events unfold at a hotel several blocks from the Bella Center, the information flow trickled to a few Twitter feeds from well-connected reporters and bloggers. Everybody was nervous. A friendly staffer from Denmark’s foreign ministry helped translate cryptic reports from Danish television.

Finally, at 10:30 pm local time, President Obama appeared in a pressroom to announce the agreement. Looking weary from travel and non-stop negotiations, the president spoke with remarkable clarity about the deal:

> “…this is going to be hard. This is hard within countries; it’s going to be even harder between countries. And one of the things that I’ve felt very strongly about during the course of this year is that hard stuff requires not paralysis, but it requires going ahead and making the best of the situation that you’re in at this point, and then continually trying to improve and make progress from there.”

Watch the press conference or read the transcript. The agreement recognizes the scientific imperative to keep increases in global temperatures below 2 degrees Celsius, calls on all nations to make deep cuts in GHG emissions with industrialized countries committing to targets for 2020, and acknowledges that emissions will peak at different times for different countries depending on each country’s level of economic development. There are also provisions to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD), major new financing mechanisms for developing countries, and support for the most vulnerable countries (e.g., small island nations and African countries) in adapting to climate change.

Within minutes, the Environmental Defense Fund and the Sierra Club, two leading U.S. NGOs that don’t always see issues the same way, issued statements generally praising the deal.

The world’s attention now shifts to the U.S. Senate, which must act on pending climate legislation next year. Senators Kerry (D-MA), Graham (R-SC), and Lieberman (I-CT) are trying to construct a bill that can obtain a filibuster-proof 60 votes. Whatever progress these senators make, President Obama will have to be personally involved in shaping the legislative details. He will have to make a case for the economic benefits of putting a price on carbon and triggering a rush to clean energy technologies. Only Obama has the political and rhetorical skills to persuade 5-10 fence-sitting senators of the urgency of voting for a climate bill. Only Obama can build on what he negotiated in Copenhagen.

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17 Comments

  1. shebroman - December 23, 2009

    yu got to be kidding right ? shocking to know u guys spin too…..what a messy sellout

  2. Ken H - December 23, 2009

    Amen to that shebroman.
    This “agreement” is a waste of jetfuel and all that its combustion entails

  3. Phoenix Woman - December 23, 2009

    The biggest success Obama had was in foiling the Chinese plan to rig the talks to fail AND stick him with the blame for it: http://phoenixwoman.wordpress.com/2009/12/22/lynas-china-rigged-copenhagen-for-failure-so-as-to-pin-the-blame-for-it-on-obama/
    Of course, this should have been obvious once the nations that were acting as China’s proxies and accomplices started whining about draft documents of an alleged evil plan by the world’s rich nations (in which China was conspicuous by its absence) that had been discarded months earlier, weren’t exactly what the Chinese proxies were saying they were, and weren’t part of the actual discussions: http://www.truthout.org/topstories/120809vh06

  4. Jason - December 23, 2009

    Complete collapse of negotiations would have been a better outcome. For now, many will believe that one more summit is all that it will take. These negotations may continue ad nauseum, as the world burns.
    The message I get from Cop15: the corporations, governments, and politicians who benefit the most from the fossil fuel driven economy will do or say ANYTHING to maintain business as usual.
    Obama will do whatever he can to maintain “economic growth” which necessitates increased carbon emmissions (and a bunch of other toxic consequences).
    It’s clear to me that our industrial economy is not compatible with life on earth. This economy must be dismantled as quickly as possible.

  5. Den Mark Wichar - December 23, 2009

    The art of politics is the art of making up seem like down & down seem like up. Obama, Wen, Medvedev, et alia – – – all politicians.
    There are too many people on the planet. Free condoms & iud’s! Free vasectomies & tubal ligations!
    In meantime, we must stop buying things. And we USA’ers must stop electing republicans & democrats.
    We are the leaders. Politicians are leaders only if we follow. There are other drummers.

  6. Don - December 23, 2009

    It’s easy to naysay, but I’ve been watching US international climate politics for the last decade. Have you other commentors been watching? Obama just moved the US from an entire decade of: obstruct, deny, “we need to study the science more” official international position, to a position of leadership in trying to get an agreement to curb emissions! He basically turned this 100 megaton containership of a 300-million person economy “hard a-port”, and he did it with his own Senate hobbling his position at home (thank you Republicans) AND with the other nations at the conference attempting to keep the US out of the negotiations!
    If naysayers don’t like that he didn’t go further, elect a Senate that will not obstruct planet-saving legislation! The election is in 2010 folks: show up and vote! An Obama with a full House and Senate climate bill behind him could have gone much further. That he achieved this much, particularly in the face of our nation’s shameful recent history on climate issues, is pretty danged encouraging. We’re leading again, but I for one sure wish we hadn’t lost that decade under Bush though – that’ll come back to haunt all of us on the planet, for a long, long time.

  7. KC - December 23, 2009

    Come on – did any of you really think that over 190 countries could agree on a set of conditions – the world has changed from the days of Kyoto…China back then was still crafting a global plan for themselves and India was mired in local issues – no one can deny that both of these situations have turned dramatically.
    The EDF and the Sierra Club – along with Mr. Stern have it just about right. Obama could have made his speech and seeing that it was hopeless, gone home. Instead he wouldn’t take no for an answer and worked a miracle to get anything agreed on before he left – how is that just another “political move?” With virtually nothing to build on from back home, he took a flimsy book of accomplishments and used the power of the US Presidency (Wilson comes to mind…) and wrangled the other world powers to agree a framework for future negotiations. It is only a beginning and to say that he is beholden to economic and business elitist concerns is laughable.
    Take a step back and see what was done in CPH as a step down a path toward stronger future agreements. In the end if we can create a global Energy Race as Tom Friedman wrote about recently – we can work our way out of Global Warming issues by using the most effective machine ever invented

  8. Cherie - December 23, 2009

    “As quickly as possible.” Well, that’s the key isn’t it? How possible is it to act quickly with so many differing opinions and agendas? Most rational people agree that change is necessary, but few are willing to commit to the next steps. With all due respect, it is far easier to speak cynically about economic growth and its impact on global warming than to have to act on it, like Obama does. He has to consider what impact dismantling our industrial economy will have on families of auto workers, of coal miners, of…everyone who will lose everything if they’re main source of income goes away.
    I’m frustrated too. I’m just saying let’s be patient. He hasn’t even been in office for a year yet.

  9. Dennis from Tahoe - December 23, 2009

    I’m proud of our newly elected President . He has a tough road to hoe with all the overwhelming domestic and global areas of concern . I am glad he stayed in Denmark and tried to bring all people together despite weak support from congress.It is tedious work for the President but extremely important for all of us .The loose agreement from Copenhagen was too weak for some and for those who still think global warming is a joke a waste of time . Keep fighting the good fight Mr. President

  10. John - December 23, 2009

    Is TerraPass getting paid by the Obama administration ??
    This article is completely divorced from the reality of the catastrophic failure of Copenhagen!
    The poor countries suffer the worst consequences, and the rich countries delay doing what is necessary to mitigate or eliminate these consequences (drought, floods, starvation, war, climate migration, etc). Meanwhile we roll the dice on possibility of abrupt climate change and the end of civilization as we know it. This is evil.
    Obama demonstrated NO recognition of this situation and NO leadership.

  11. Jack - December 23, 2009

    Obama didn’t convene jack. As was reported he walked in on a meeting he was NOT invited to. If Obama’s goal was more than a quick trip to Copenhagen and another photo opportunity at the expense of US taxpayers HE FAILED and he did so MISERABLY.
    Please stop posting political spin lest this web site become just another mouth for the White House.
    Merry Christmas to all

  12. Don - December 23, 2009

    John, have to disagree with you here. “No leadership” would have been the George W. Bush approach: put your head in the sand and deny there’s a problem. Obama did much better.
    The “timid leadership” approach would have been what the other nations at Copenhagen were doing: walking around watching the conference go off the rails as the disparate interests failed to come together. Obama did better.
    Obama attempted the “bold leadership” approach, untried in the US in more than a decade, and found, cajoled, and/or pulled together a general statement AND GOT HUNDREDS OF NATIONS TO SIGN IT in a matter of hours. I am not surprised folks don’t recognize this thing called leadership; they haven’t seen it in quite some time.
    He could not go any further due to the fact that the Senate has to ratify our international treaties, and the currently dysfunctional Senate still has not expressed an opinion through legislation on climate change. In fact, it’s possible that even the lukewarm statement that he achieved was going too far out on a limb. I have little doubt Republicans in the Senate are already trying to saw off that tiny little limb by saying he went beyond the limits of his Executive power by signing it (and the irony in _that_ angle of attack is almost limitless given the last 8 years).

  13. Joshua Hart - December 24, 2009

    come on people post my comment-or is censorship the terrapass way?
    [Ed. — your comment was caught by the spam filter. You’ll have to repost.]

  14. geciktirici - December 27, 2009

    The message I get from Cop15: the corporations, governments, and politicians who benefit the most from the fossil fuel driven economy will do or say ANYTHING to maintain business as usual.

  15. zayıflama - December 27, 2009

    I have little doubt Republicans in the Senate are already trying to saw off that tiny little limb by saying he went beyond the limits of his Executive

  16. Guy from Canada - December 30, 2009

    The American political system has become corrupt and is now of, by and for the corporations and the rich and powerful. Canada isn’t far behind. Americans should rise up and demand systemic reforms to eliminate the senate/lobbyist/special interest roadblocks that are hobbling Mr. Obama’s efforts to seriously combat climate change. In that regard, perhaps Americans and Canadians could take a lesson from the current opposition demonstrators in Iran.

  17. David Booth - December 31, 2009

    Whoever wrote this article has been watching too much US television coverage of the Copenhagen Conference. Obama brought nothing to the table. Everyone was holding their breath to hear what he would do. Answer, NOTHING. “Oops I have to leave now to go on vacation in Hawaii”. He seized the conference and gave the worst press conference ever before disappearing into the sunset. Leaving no agreement. Same result as GW Bush would have achieved.
    One of the biggest polluters USA has again copped-out of its responsibilities. How dare Obama say he dosent trust China when in effect the results achieved so far in China are far beyond those of USA. Would Obama accept monitoring of US results by Chinese officials? I think not. Blame China is Obama’s policy.
    Now if you want to see an example of real climate change action consider Brazil, who promised to reduced emissions by 38% below 1990 levels and to spend $160 billion over the next ten years to implement carbon reduction technologies. Now thats an article I would like to read on Terra Pass, no more USA propaganda.