What stood out most about the United States’ role in the United Nations climate talks that just wrapped in Warsaw, Poland, was how little the United States stood out.
While the U.S. is used to being the bad guy -- or at least one of them -- in the international climate arena, this year the Americans seemed perfectly happy to keep their heads down, quietly do their business, and let other big polluters take the punches.
It doesn’t usually work this way. For the nearly two decades that the U.N.’s annual climate talks have been held -- and especially for the past 12 years, since the U.S. backed out of the Kyoto Protocol that it had helped design -- the world's largest historical greenhouse gas polluter has taken most of the blame from environmental groups and poor countries for essentially causing the problem and doing squat to solve it.
This year, though, American negotiators are heading home relatively unscathed, if severely sleep deprived from the marathon, 36-hour session that was needed to wrap up the talks with something resembling an agreement. (You can read all about the outcomes in John Upton’s somewhat-less-than-disheartening wrap-up.)
It’s impossible to know if this was a guiding strategy going into the talks, but the U.S. managed to offer just enough to avoid smelling as bad as a host of other countries whose behavior was downright putrid.
Consider this comment by Tim Gore of Oxfam, who was talking specifically about some positions on climate finance (or how rich countries will help poor ones deal with climate change), but who might as well have been talking about the whole UNFCCC process: “Ironically, this is even making the U.S. look good. Not because they’ve actually done anything here, but because other countries are going backwards.”