Grist's coverage of Copenhagen climate talks

A specter hangs over the U.S. negotiators at the Copenhagen climate summit: the Kyoto Syndrome. Conventional wisdom holds that the Clinton Administration, and Al Gore in particular, blew it by agreeing to the Kyoto Accords without building the foundation for the Senate to ratify it, which it never did. (See, e.g., “How to Prevent Climate Change Summit from Failure”).

Al Gore.“America lost a lot of credibility when then-Vice President Al Gore promised the international community in Kyoto something that he knew could never be passed by the Congress,” said Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), who will lead a group of House Republicans to rain on the parade in Copenhagen. “I would hope that President Obama will not repeat Al Gore’s mistake.”  

Now, if it were just Sensenbrenner, it might not amount to much. He doesn’t want a climate policy at all; it doesn’t matter what Obama brings back from Copenhagen. But the president’s own party is beating the Kyoto Syndrome drum too. Senator Jim Webb (D-Va.) warned Obama in a letter last week:

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The phrase ‘politically binding’ has been used. As you well know from your time in the Senate, only specific legislation agreed upon in the Congress, or a treaty ratified by the Senate, could actually create such a commitment on behalf of our country.

The Kyoto Syndrome is a dark cloud over the talks. It handcuffs the U.S. delegation, preventing it from making clear and aggressive agreements on critical issues for fear of “getting too far ahead of Congress.” Some of these issues — like long-term financing for adaptation and clean development — could torpedo the talks if left unresolved.

Sign Up for More News from GristThere is a desperate fury here in Copenhagen among the poorest countries. They believe that this is the last great hope for a global campaign to limit concentrations of climate pollution to less than 350 ppm. They believe that anything above this level will devastate them. They believe they are contributing the least to the problem but suffering the worst of its consequences. And so they are rejecting the developed world’s weak commitments on emission reduction and financing as “a suicide pact.” And in all of this, they are right. But the Kyoto Syndrome inhibits U.S. negotiators from offering much more.

The solution here isn’t obvious. The Obama Administration is walking a fine line — trying to demonstrate American resolve and leadership without making commitments to do things that Congress won’t abide. 

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But let’s revisit Kyoto. Is the “lesson” really that the Clinton Administration was too ambitious in its commitment to solutions, with “too ambitious” defined as “ahead of Congress?” In relation to the reality of the challenge, they were not nearly ambitious enough. Their approach to Kyoto and its aftermath may not have been perfect, but they were on the right side of the issue. They tried to lead. 

The “mistake” belongs squarely to Congress, which has resisted meaningful climate action for over 20 years since Jim Hansen first testified that the science was clear. They are still debating the science (which has gotten a lot worse since Hansen told them it was bad), with a fresh burst of shamelessness from the stolen emails (which do nothing to undermine the scientific consensus). Fossil-funded denialists were gleeful that this hackjob was enough to distract Congress from the urgent business of finishing climate and energy legislation — again. “What it does is it allows people, it allows elected officials, it allows media, it allows guys like me access to the science debate again,” said energy lobbyist Michael McKenna.

Why would Congress allow that again?  Why did the Senate thumb its nose at the world by failing to pass comprehensive clean energy and climate legislation in time for the international negotiations? Because of health care? Here’s how John Bruton, the E.U. ambassador to the United States described the affront: “I submit that asking an international conference to sit around looking out the window for months, while one chamber of the legislature of one country deals with its other business, is simply not a realistic political position.”

It was a “mistake” all right — to stand around with our arms folded while the rest of the world began to move forward under Kyoto. But it takes a lot of gall to call it “Al Gore’s mistake.” There is no excuse for Congress’ failure to act, least of all that the Clinton Administration was too ambitious in its commitment to climate solutions.

I won’t presume to have the answer as to how the Obama Administration should balance the imperative for leadership with the politics of domestic action. It’s not easy. But now that one of the fiercest opponents of climate action in the U.S. House is coming to Copenhagen brandishing “Al Gore’s mistake,” the Obama Administration should at least scratch its head about the conventional wisdom. Leading less aggressively is exactly what Sensenbrenner wants, because he doesn’t want anything to happen at all.

Yes, the Kyoto Syndrome teaches us that domestic political will is essential. But we can’t build the will for real climate solutions with politics-as-usual, as Bill McKibben argues here

If the Obama Administration limits its negotiating position in Copenhagen to Congress’ comfort zone, we’re in for a long 10 days and a weak result. The lesson of Kyoto is that Congress needs to move, not that the president needs to back off.

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