Delaying an international climate treaty: not as bad as it looks
[See update at bottom.]
The big news this weekend was that a coalition of world leaders made it official: there will be no full-fledged, legally binding agreement out of the Copenhagen climate talks. Instead there will be a “politically binding” agreement, pledging to work out a full agreement in 2010 — “one agreement, two steps.” This was Denmark PM (and Copenhagen host) Lars Lokke Rasmussen’s way of salvaging a half-win from what was threatening to be a total loss.
Of course opponents of climate action are portraying it as a disaster that augers the death of UNFCCC process; they do that with every setback or delay. Climate activists don’t seem to have decided quite yet what to think about it. My take: it’s not as bad as it looks. I’d endorse some mix of Broder, Romm, and Schmidt.
NYT’s John Broder is right about the main constraint here. Well, almost right. He says “Congress,” but the real culprit is the Senate. That dysfunctional body is taking its sweet, preening time as always, letting health care reform drag on into winter and now, in a fit of cluelessness, delaying a deficit-neutral, job-creating clean energy bill to … focus on jobs and the deficit. Behind the scenes, that bill is getting larded up with enough retrograde energy pork to secure precious conservative votes. Best case scenario, it limps through the Senate, gets a little remediation in conference committee, and passes in April or May. Beyond then, midterm politics take over and reasonable legislating becomes impossible.
This absurdly protracted process is playing out as dozens of countries hang out, tapping their feet, looking at their watches, flipping idly through waiting-room magazines. Concerted international action can’t get started without the U.S., and the U.S. can’t get started without the Senate — the Obama administration won’t promise anything to which the Senate hasn’t committed. So the world waits for the Senate, observing its legislative process with a mix of bewilderment, anxiety, and disdain.
Joe Romm points out that the delay offers some needed breathing room. The sense that the world is waiting will increase pressure on the Senate to pass a bill (there’s pressure from Brazil and France already). Conversely, legislation from the U.S. would increase pressure on China and India to step up to the plate with targets and timetables.
NRDC’s Jake Schmidt notes that the extra time will be beneficial if a) enough details are settled in Copenhagen and b) world leaders focus on ironing out a final agreement in the intervening months. That’s a big if.
Nonetheless, if the world’s nations had headed into Copenhagen expecting a legally binding treaty complete with targets and timetables, the result would have been disappointment, acrimony, and worst of all, wasted time. By taking some of the pressure off Copenhagen, the two-steps agreement has avoided disaster and maintained momentum. It’s also given the Obama administration time to engage in more climate diplomacy. Now if something could just be done about the Senate …
UPDATE: I’m hearing from people close to the international process that Rasmussen’s deal might not be as official as it’s been made to seem by the U.S. media. Apparently Denmark and the U.S. sprang this on their Asian partners and there’s been some pushback, from them and from small island states and African nations.
To boot, Rasmussen’s agreement seems like a variation on the plan Yvo de Boer has been fronting for a while — only without de Boer’s hard deadlines, thus letting developed countries off the hook.
Anyway, there’s a lot more to this story than is reflected in most media reports. We’ll bring you updates as events unfold.