President Obama announced today that he will attend the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, raising the stakes for himself and all participating nations.

The initial goal for Copenhagen was to forge a binding treaty. But that ambitious goal has been scaled back. With American climate protection legislation bogged down in the Senate after clearing the House, Obama can’t put enough commitments on the table to secure a final agreement. Division over how to financially help developing nations respond to global warming also remains far from resolved.

But the participating nations do not want Copenhagen to be an exercise in vague rhetoric and meaningless communiques. What would constitute a success? What could come out of Copenhagen that would help us avert a climate crisis?

President Obama laid down that marker yesterday, in his joint appearance with the Indian Prime Minister:

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…it’s … essential that all countries do what is necessary to reach a strong operational agreement that will confront the threat of climate change while serving as a stepping stone to a legally binding treaty. And to that end, Prime Minister Singh and I made important progress today. We reaffirmed that an agreement in Copenhagen should be comprehensive and cover all the issues under negotiation. We resolved to take significant national mitigation actions that will strengthen the world’s ability to combat climate change. We agreed to stand by these commitments with full transparency, through appropriate processes, as to their implementation.

In other words, for Copenhagen to be a success, all nations have to get started on cutting actual greenhouse gas emissions.

We don’t have to agree on the exact targets, timeframes and total financial assistance. But we have to get moving, because the planetary clock is ticking.

President Obama going is a sign of American commitment. Hopefully, before Copenhagen, Obama’s decision will be backed up by a tripartisan deal from Sens. John Kerry, Joe Lieberman and Lindsey Graham, so it will be fairly clear America is on the verge of acting, and not making excuses.

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Control of Copenhagen’s outcome is far from being solely in Obama’s hands.

China and India, always using America as an excuse for irresponsible growth, need to step up on emissions targets.

The EU, always crowing about its emissions targets, needs to step up on financial assistance to developing nations.

Yet Obama has set the benchmark for success. And he has put his own national and international credibility on the line to achieve that success.

It’s always a political risk to set goals that you can’t achieve unilaterally. But that’s what leaders do.


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