Grist's coverage of Copenhagen climate talks

COPENHAGEN — Lisa Jackson, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, pushed through a crush of visitors at the U.S. Center late this morning, stepped to the podium in front of a packed meeting room, and became the first of President Obama’s senior advisors to appear at the U.N. Climate Change Conference specifically to make the case that the United States is assuming its share of the global burden to cool the planet.

Whether delegates from 191 other nations represented here, and thousands of activists and journalists who’ve joined them in Copenhagen, will be convinced is not at all clear. Conference organizers and delegates worried today that developing nations might walk out of the proceedings, a decision that would be spurred, at least in part, by assertions from poor countries that rich nations are not doing enough to combat climate change.

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Jackson’s appearance will be followed over the next week by the secretaries of Interior, Commerce, Energy, Agriculture, and the president himself. All will speak from a script about the Obama administration’s work this year to shift the federal government’s work on climate change from Bush-era denial to focused activism. The new administration narrative, much of it to be staged at the 6,500-square-foot U.S. Center, is aimed at convincing the world that a new reckoning with the planet’s dire climate situation is at hand. Said Jackson: “2009 cements the place in history when the United States seized the challenge of dealing with greenhouse gas pollution. “

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Different than Bush

There is no argument, by the administration’s supporters and its most vociferous critics, that when it comes to a focused response to warming temperatures and increasing levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the U.S. has vastly improved its game. The persistent rumble of discontent at these talks, and others in the last year, is whether it’s enough.

A lot of nations say it’s not. A number of American NGO staffers agree. The Obama administration, at war with the fossil industry and its allies in Congress, says it’s doing everything in its power to negotiate a climate deal here that has authentic merit.

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The mission for Jackson here today, and for the colleagues that follow her, is to break through the doubts. In her brief remarks, she took note of the progression of the EPA and the Obama administration’s actions to reduce climate-changing air emissions since the inauguration.

Last month, for instance, the president announced that the U.S. was prepared to make a commitment here to a reduction in greenhouse emissions in the “range of 17 percent” below 2005 levels, the first time the U.S. has issued such targets. Earlier this year Jackson and her agency issued new vehicle emissions and efficiency standards, and a new rule requiring large polluters to report their greenhouse gas emissions. In February, the president signed the economic recovery bill that included — depending on how you count — $80 billion to $110 billion for climate gas-reducing clean energy technology, energy efficiency, public transit, and research investments.

And on Monday, on the same day that the climate conference opened, the EPA issued a formal finding that carbon dioxide and five other compounds endanger public health and safety. The so-called “endangerment” finding, which was mandated by a 2007 Supreme Court decision, clears the way for Jackson and her agency to begin regulating greenhouse gas emissions.

Conference presence updated

There’s also little argument that the American approach to this conference — visible, aggressive, and reliant on the administration’s political star power — also differs significantly from the previous global negotiations over the last year in places like Bonn and Barcelona.

In those talks, the U.S. seemed continually on the defensive. In Barcelona, where climate negotiators gathered in late October, the U.S. was greeted by serious challenge from big and small nations, rich and poor, about its refusal to set targets on emissions and financial contributions to developing countries. The early days of that negotiation were marked by some predictions that the U.S. position might push the talks to collapse.

Jonathan Pershing, the deputy special envoy for climate change and the chief U.S. negotiator, tried to explain that the Obama administration was reluctant to repeat the ordeal of 1997, when the Clinton administration signed the Kyoto Protocol to limit emissions, but encountered such stiff resistance in the Senate that the treaty was never submitted for a vote. Delegates from other nations scoffed, saying Pershing’s defense of the administration’s decision to withhold those two crucial numbers — emissions limits and financial investment — was a matter of internal domestic politics that the U.S. needed to resolve, just like any other nation.

In Washington, a battle over climate

The ideological battle over clean energy and climate change has only gotten more nasty. Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the Democratic Majority Leader, put off debate and a vote on a proposed Senate version of climate and clean energy bill until the spring. And a manufactured scandal by opponents to climate action, involving email messages stolen from an English climate research group, has energized allies of the fossil fuel industry in and outside government, and reached the doorsteps of the Bella Center, where the climate conference is being held.

But in the weeks since the Barcelona negotiations, the administration has unfurled the results of the months of private climate negotiations that the president and his aides have undertaken with U.S. allies. The president met with the leaders of China and India this fall. After the president announced the American emissions target, China and India announced new targets of their own, the first time that has occurred.

The White House also announced that the U.S. had established the U.S. Center at the Copenhagen Conference.  Along with the cabinet secretaries scheduled to speak here Carol Browner, the coordinator of energy and climate policy, and Nancy Sutley, the chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, will also make high-profile presentations.

U.S. Center planned a year ago

A senior State Department official who participated in planning the U.S. Center, who asked not to be identified, confirmed that the U.S. Center was a center piece of the American marketing strategy, developed at the start of the year, to change how the administration and the country are viewed at climate conferences.

The official did not say when the administration decided to showcase its top energy, environment, and natural resources officials here. But the planning appears to have coincided with the president’s own decision to attend the Copenhagen conference, which he originally scheduled for tomorrow, and then rescheduled to Dec. 18, the conference’s last day. President Obama will be one of 110 heads of state that are now expected to attend the conference, according to the United Nations conference organizers.

Yesterday, according to participants, Jackson received a standing ovation when she was introduced at a private meeting with American NGO activists. U.S. delegation members said they anticipate President Obama also will be warmly embraced here. Very clearly, judging by the bounce in the steps of lower-level officials who’ve appeared at the U.S. Center, the president will be greeted by an energized staff that no longer feels like it needs to defend the American position on the deteriorating climate.

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