MADISON, Wisc. — President Obama’s lieutenants put on their game faces as they fielded journalists’ questions Friday, but there was a palpable sense that they know the game is already over going into the global talks on climate change in December.

I wish I could say something different, but that’s the sense I got as these key administration officials appeared here at the annual conference of the Society of Environmental Journalists. Former vice president Al Gore also tried to say a deal is possible at the COP15 negotiations in Copenhagen. But read between the lines, and it’s clear that the administration is already focused on what happens after that.

Just listen to Nancy Sutley, head of the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality: “I’m optimistic we’ll know what we need to do when we leave Copenhagen.”

Jim Rogers, head of Duke Energy (I guess they’re the “good guys” on climate now? Because they’re working for a climate bill…) even came out and said it: “Copenhagen has the capability to (continue) all next year.”

If there was a bright side, it was Gore’s speculation that Obama will in fact attend the Copenhagen talks. The former veepster said “I feel certain he will,” this coming on the same day Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize. (The prize will be presented in Oslo on December 10, making it very easy for the president to zip down to Copenhagen.)

For the record, from Gore as keynoter and all the members of the opening plenary panel, the order of the day was cheerleading for U.S. climate-change legislation and a successful meeting in Copenhagen. (Well, there was one exception: climate change denier and GOP Rep. James Sensenbrenner said anything coming out of the COP15 meetings would be no better than “a blank piece of paper.”)

In fact, Duke Energy’s Rogers claimed that his firm is making decisions as if the climate-change legislation already had been passed.

Gore went so far as to predict relatively fast passage of climate legislation in the Senate, saying, “There is much more bipartisan dialogue behind the scenes in the U.S. Senate than is publicly known.” He called Senate passage by December “more likely than not.” OK, if you say so, Al … but realistically, aren’t senators going to be tied up with health care at least until December? Sure seems that way.

Gore went on to say he didn’t expect a perfect treaty to come out of Copenhagen, but he looks at it the way he did the Montreal Protocol in 1987, which was drawn up to save the ozone layer: It was far short of what was thought was needed; but the very fact that so many nations signed on and got to work made it much easier to reach a more realistic and effective treaty three years later.

Jane Lubchenco, the ocean scientist Obama tapped to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, was among those predicting a political tipping point on climate, just as happened previously with smoking, drunk driving, civil rights and women’s suffrage.

“We are approaching the end game, I think,” she told the conference.

But later I caught up with Lubchenco, and she didn’t challenge my interpretation that administration officials aren’t too hopeful about the climate talks. She allowed that every day that passes without climate legislation in the U.S. “makes it that much harder to get agreement in Copenhagen.”

So, I asked, what’s the road map beyond Copenhagen if there is no treaty?

“We’ve been working so hard on Copenhagen that we have not really thought beyond that,” she answered.

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