Grist in Copenhagen

We asked our expert panel about the significance of President Obama changing the timing of his visit to the Copenhagen climate talks, from Dec. 9, the middle of the first week, to Dec. 18, the big finale at the end of the second week. Is this a big deal? What does it mean?

Here are edited excerpts from their responses: 

Kenneth P. Green

Kenneth P. Green
Resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute

I think there is probably some significance to this decision, for Obama to appear at the tail end of Copenhagen.

Previously, the Obama administration had outlined a plan that would let him avoid blame if things went south: he was going to arrive early, leave early, and whatever happened at Copenhagen would stay at Copenhagen. Certainly, it wouldn’t be Obama’s fault, regardless of outcome.

But this change of plans, which would put President Obama in Copenhagen on the last day of the conference, changes the game. It suggests that a “deal” is already in the bag, and Obama’s expecting that he’ll get to bask in the glow of a new global agreement, flagrantly repudiating the position of the Bush administration in previous climate negotiations.

Given the fiasco over getting the Olympic Games for Illinois, there’s little chance that Obama’s advisors would risk letting him look impotent on the world stage for a second time. So to me, this discussion suggests that the outcome of Copenhagen has been predetermined according to the usual script:

1) People talk up expectations for a COP meeting;
2) People talk down expectations for a COP meeting;
3) Much is made about positions that can’t be resolved;
4) The possibility of failure is floated and worried about;
5) Celebrity Megafauna fly in (with a massive greenhouse-gas footprint) to save the day (see also, Al Gore);
6) A face-saving statement is released suggesting that the world’s leadership has (after heroically prolonged, difficult negotiations) agreed on the importance of expanding government in order to resolve the climate crisis, regardless of whether the agreement would actually do anything about climate change, and regardless of whether or not you believe that climate change is a looming catastrophe for humanity; and
7) They all agree to meet in another luxurious and exotic venue to continue discussions.

The date change suggests the outcome of Copenhagen is already determined. The rest is likely Kabuki theater.

Andrew Light

Andrew Light 
Senior fellow at the Center for American Progress

Rather than speculating on the details, we need to pause for a moment to appreciate the full significance of this announcement. Obama’s decision will effectively transform the Copenhagen climate conference into the largest summit yet of world leaders focused on global warming (oh yes, I know, there were something like 108 at Rio, but they also did biodiversity there).  The decision to commit the U.S. to a global climate assistance fund for developing countries is essential for any hope for a good outcome.

Just a few weeks ago, prospects for any meaningful outcome at the U.N. climate summit in Copenhagen appeared out of reach. President Obama upped the ante with his statement in Beijing in November that he would seek an interim agreement in Copenhagen on the way to a final treaty in 2010. He sealed the deal with his announcement before Thanksgiving that the U.S. will commit to a reduction in carbon pollution in the range of 17 percent by 2020 on the way to a decrease of 83 percent by 2050. He committed then to personally go to Copenhagen on Dec. 9 to support this proposal, on his way to Oslo to accept the Nobel Peace Prize on Dec. 10.

Skeptics dismissed this turn by the administration as too little too late, pointing out that if Obama were really serious, then he would go to Copenhagen toward the end of the meeting on Dec. 18, when some 98 world leaders (the most recent count as of yesterday) will be in attendance, rather than only going at a time convenient to his schedule. Over the last week, every interview I’ve given on Obama going to Copenhagen has included this question.

Sign Up for More News from Grist Today Obama set those concerns to rest. After meeting with some of our closest allies, he has announced that he will attend the Copenhagen meeting at the end to ensure its success. More importantly, he announced a commitment by the United States to a global fund to mobilize $10 billion a year by 2012 to support adaptation by developing countries to the impacts of global warming that they are already experiencing and mitigation of harmful carbon pollution. Commitment on this scale by developed countries had recently emerged as an absolutely necessary condition for keeping all parties at the table. The decision today may well have prevented the meeting from ending in a dangerous stalemate.  

Let’s savor all of this before the next round of second-guessing begins.

Hugh Bartling

Hugh Bartling 
Associate professor of public policy at DePaul University in Chicago

What struck me was the invocation in the White House release of the Danish proposal, which Indian Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh rejected as “totally unacceptable.”

I haven’t seen the proposal, but reports suggest that it has a specific year for developing countries to peak emissions (2025) and that there is some sort of mitigation schedule for developing countries.  These two elements appear to be anathema to Ramesh. So I am wondering whether this might further the resolve of India-China-Brazil etc. to push for an unadulterated second commitment period for Kyoto.

Contrary to Kenneth Green’s analysis of this being indicative of a fait accompli, could this rather presage some actual drama over the next two weeks?

Patrick HaysPatrick H. Hays
Mayor, North Little Rock, Arkansas

There are many ways to analyze President Obama’s Copenhagen schedule change. But for mayors and local government elected officials like me who have been on the frontlines of the United States’ response to climate change for years, the symbolism and promise alone make it worth the long wait we’ve endured. I feel a sense of relief, hope, pride, and anticipation.

There has already been significant leadership in the United States on climate and energy issues — it has just been in city halls, statehouses, and boardrooms. Together with governors, CEOs, college students, church leaders, and many others, local governments have helped sustain the momentum for international climate action that has brought us to this point. And we did that, until now, in spite of Washington, D.C.

The United States has long been criticized for lack of action at the national level, but President Obama’s actions over the past year culminating in this historic decision have changed the game dramatically. The game — effectively combating global warming — has always been winnable, we just didn’t have the all the right players on the field. We now have a star quarterback in the lineup, and the odds for victory — for a healthy planet and new clean-energy economy — are stronger than ever.

Neil Tangri

Neil Tangri 
Director of the Waste and Climate Change campaign at the Global Anti-Incinerator Alliance

I think it means that Obama thinks he can seal a deal. I agree that he wouldn’t change his plans unless he thought there was something useful within reach. As far as that goes, it’s good news.

The real question, though, is what kind of a deal? Climate Action Tracker reported on Friday that if the political commitments currently on the table are realized, we will still see a 3.5 degree C rise in temperature this century. It’s hard to know whether things will get better or worse before a deal is reached. I hear that the U.S. has spent considerable effort behind the scenes twisting the arms of delegations that are calling for stronger targets, like the Philippines. This may presage a deal, but a bad one.


Frank MaisanoFrank Maisano
Co-head of the strategic communications practice at Bracewell & Giuliani LLP

I agree that the president changing his schedule raises the significance of the closing deal.  But let me remind everyone that the likely end results are political agreements.  Political agreements can and are often broken with nothing more than handling the PR concerns.  

This seems to be more about image and spin than the real substance of agreement.  That is why the president will be there–because he doesn’t want to project an image of indifference.  And, frankly, President Obama is very good at delivering a message.  I don’t think the fix is in like others may, but a feel-good political agreement really doesn’t matter that much if “350” or a workable, enforceable treaty is the end goal.  

We as a policy community must and do care about the substance of these agreements, but the principals (the politicians) are focused clearly on the public perception of solutions rather than actual solutions.

Kassie Siegel

Kassie Siegel
Senior counsel and director of the Climate Law Institute for the Center for Biological Diversity

On its second try, the Obama administration got it right and chose the appropriate day for the president to attend the climate talks.  But there is no Earth 2, and we won’t get a second chance to prevent the worst impacts of global warming.  When it comes to the substance of negotiating a binding climate treaty that actually puts us on the road to solving the climate crisis, President Obama needs to get it right the first time.

Unfortunately, Obama’s proposal so far for a “politically binding” treaty in which the U.S. will aim for 3 percent reductions from 1990 levels by 2020 (well below the 7 percent reduction by 2012 we agreed to in Kyoto over a decade ago) is wholly inadequate.  We need to step up the pressure for an equitable and science-based solution, so that the president not only turns up on the right day, but also does the right thing when he gets there.

Sanjay Khanna

Sanjay Khanna 
Climate journalist and Huffington Post blogger

Big deal? Yes and no, heavily biased towards no.

On the yes side, Obama’s presence is a powerful symbol that will further raise Copenhagen’s profile. Obama’s drawing power will heighten COP15 tension and expectation with photo-ops, buzz, excitement, and smooth-jazz rhetorical flourish. Counterintuitively, it could also suck the air out of the climate-change movement for six months or more, especially if Obama’s Copenhagen visit creates a false appearance of progress.

Veering over to no, Obama’s attendance will raise aspirations that, in light of extreme economic, political, environmental, and psychosocial obstacles, may be impossible to adequately address. Furthermore, there’s a perceptual issue here: While Obama may appear to be today’s leader, he’s behaving as if he’s yesterday’s man. I’d posit Obama is the American president that the U.S. and the world needed 20 years ago when Jim Hansen first testified before Congress. At that time, it was still possible to undertake the wonk-friendly, methodical processes that Obama appeared to favor before expediency began driving his administration’s behavior. The leaders we need now are different from Obama—and I hope some of them are going to be in Copenhagen. In short order, we need leaders who can win the peace in civil society before the stresses we’ve placed on air, land, and water, not to mention innocent average people, affect quality of life to the point that desperation starts to dog civilian life, undermining the ability to address anything other than basic survival.

As to the desperation that’s already being felt in Africa, the Indian subcontinent, the Maldives, and the Federated States of Micronesia, where climate change is hitting hard and isn’t a theoretical issue, Obama may sympathize, but he’s unlikely to be able to promise anything substantive in climate mitigation or climate-refugee migration policy. It’s hard to overemphasize the critical nature of planning the mass movement of large populations in response to shortages of food, water, and other necessities: How Obama and the West respond should offer clues as to whether the global pursuit of economic growth will continue to hasten developing countries’ collision course with ecological collapse and social disintegration.

Joe Mendelson

Joe Mendelson
Director of global warming policy at the National Wildlife Federation

This means Obama has gone from a potential cheerleading speech to being at the table for real negotiations. The administration will also announce the endangerment finding on Monday setting up domestic Clean Air Act regulation of greenhouse gases, which means he can claim steps toward administrative action that would probably get reductions in the range of 17 percent regardless of Congress.  Couple that with the pledge on “quick start” financing and this means a deal is in the works. Yes, it may not be the whole climate-solving enchilada we want, but that was more than we could expect.