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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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