Grist's coverage of Copenhagen climate talks

COPENHAGEN — One of the puzzles about the U.S. strategy here in is how negotiators expected that pledging a 17 percent emissions reduction below 2005 levels by 2020 could be taken seriously. After all, that would bring the U.S. to approximately 1990 levels a decade from now, which is higher than the level the U.S. committed to in the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 (signed, but never ratified). It’s also far higher than what other governments have committed to, notably the European Union, which has unilaterally promised to get to 20 percent below 1990 levels by 2020.

The argument, of course, is that the 17 percent pledge is the best the U.S. can do, given the difficulty of getting 67 U.S. senators to ratify a treaty. This message sends developing countries into a tizzy, though, because it seems to make the whole 190-country negotiation (and the fate of the planet) dependent on about ten swing senators from the United States who aren’t even here.

But is the administration’s Senate strategy so crazy? Yesterday, I spoke with John Holdren, President Obama’s chief science advisor, who laid out the case for this strategy in a side-event.

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According to Holdren, nothing the U.S. does could contribute more to fight climate change than passing and implementing cap-and-trade legislation. Therefore, it follows that the U.S. shouldn’t agree to anything in Copenhagen that would jeopardize treaty ratification or the prospects for moving a climate bill through Congress. This includes agreeing to larger emissions reductions targets being demanded by developing countries.

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“Getting going quickly is more important than agreeing on the ultimate goal,” Holdren said. “Once we get going, we will be on a trajectory to achieve the long term goal” of 83 percent reductions below 2005 levels by 2050, “which is fully consistent with 450 ppm.”

When I asked Holdren if he was concerned about feedback loops and tipping points that might cause serious damage before 2050, he said that a more aggressive 2020 goal was not needed. The most important point was for U.S. emissions to peak and then start to decline by 2015, he said, and the U.S. negotiating stance is consistent with that path.

Holdren added that it is a distraction to debate whether the ultimate goal should be 350 ppm versus 450 ppm, or limiting warming to 1.5 degrees C instead of 2 degrees C. Targets and timetables can always be made more aggressive later, and inserting those issues into the current congressional process would only result in delay, he said.

So the administration is playing a delicate two-level negotiating game here. It is working hard for agreement at Copenhagen, but it is not budging on its emissions reductions pledge to ensure that any future treaty has some chance of getting ratified at home.

The administration’s Senate strategy explains why the U.S. is pushing for a “pledge and review” system in which developed states could all pledge widely varying emissions reductions figures. It opposes a Kyoto-style agreement in which all reduction pledges are roughly uniform.

It also means that the major wiggle room for the United States at Copenhagen is not in the emissions numbers, but in financing. That’s why Hillary Clinton’s announcement today that the U.S. would work for a $100 billion per year fund for climate change mitigation and adaption in the developing world could be a crucial breakthrough in the negotiations.

We can only hope that the administration strategy works. They are right to emphasize treaty ratification — there’s no point in agreeing to a treaty here that can’t become law back home. President Obama will also push hard for domestic legislation, regardless of the outcome in Copenhagen. But it is not clear that a Senate bill will mandate a 17 percent emissions reduction by 2020, nor is it clear that it will involve any firm reduction commitments (it might be structured around subsidies, pork, and tax credits instead). It is also not clear that the House will again pass a final bill with a 17 percent reduction. Waxman-Markey passed by a nine-vote margin in June 2009, but 2010 is a whole other ballgame.

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