Circle of Blue’s senior editor analyzes the Barcelona climate talks as the conference comes to a close and U.S. legislation remains at a standstill.
BARCELONA (November 5, 2009) – It’s been 30 years since scientists first gained a clear understanding of the dangerous consequences of continuously adding more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. This week during the five days of negotiations in Barcelona the world learned again that the formula for solving global warming is a diplomatic chemistry problem that still defies a solution.
The problem has less to do with the regulatory and financial ingredients of a successful climate treaty formula, though they are complex and formidable, and much more to do with raw ideological differences, national rivalries and even competing human emotions. Urgency and frustration marked the Barcelona talks. But so did new pleas for patience and trust.
At the center of the rush of conflicting sentiment is the United States, whose strategy for collaborating on a global treaty centers on a decidedly stubborn refusal to make commitments on two critical factors that the rest of the world sees as essential for a final agreement. The first is how much carbon the U.S. will order its industries to take out of the atmosphere. And the second is how much it will invest in developing nations to lower emissions and accelerate clean energy development.
The Obama administration has its reasons for not divulging either detail, and its position is supported by most American environmental organizations. What much of the world still doesn’t really recognize is the administration is engaged in a ferocious ideological war with Republicans over the need for climate action and the value of making the transition from fossil fuel to clean energy.
The White House also has the ghost of Kyoto sitting on its shoulder. Mindful of the Clinton administration’s inability to ratify the climate treaty that the U.S. signed in Japan in 1997, it doesn’t want to repeat that embarrassing chapter in American environmental and foreign policy. As president, Barack Obama has repeated pledges he made during last year’s campaign to take action on global warming. But he’s also made it clear that the administration prefers to wait for Congress to conclude its work on a new climate and energy bill before it makes specific commitments on the global treaty.
The House approved a climate and energy bill in June that proposed cutting carbon emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 and more in the years after. It also proposed investing about $5 billion annually to help developing nations adjust to climate change.
But right in the middle of the Barcelona negotiations, the political risks of the White House strategy became clearer. Progress on a Senate bill similar to the House proposal has been beset by a focused attack from Obama’s opponents. On the second day of the Barcelona negotiations Republican members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee did not show up for committee action on the bill in a move to kill it.
The committee pressed forward and voted on Thursday to approve the measure, but its influence as a signal of American intentions for the Copenhagen meeting was muted. That’s because Senator Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat and the Senate Majority Leader, had already agreed on Wednesday to Republican demands and approved another in a series of federal studies on the costs of the bill, a process that will take at least five weeks to complete.
In Barcelona, leaders of the climate negotiations both worried about and anticipated just this sort of scenario in Washington and appealed directly to the Obama administration to take strong, separate action from the congressional process. “Copenhagen has to include clarity and targets that that industrialized countries, including the U.S., are willing to take in 2020 or 2030 horizon,” said Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention of Climate Change, who is leading the negotiations.
He added: “I do not think the international community will accept an instrument that lacks clarity from what the U.S. will do on its emissions.”
In diplomatic terms, that is pretty strong stuff. And most other negotiators felt de Boer’s statement was justified.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the premier scientific body studying the issue, atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide have increased nearly 40 percent in the last century, from 278 parts million to more than 380. Average global temperatures have risen 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit. Scientists say this is the largest and fastest warming trend that they have been able to discern in the history of the Earth. And evidence of the consequences is mounting. Sea levels are rising. The Himalayan glaciers, which supply snowmelt to the headwaters of Asian rivers used by 750 million people, are melting. Severe droughts are gripping important food growing regions, including the American Southwest and Australia’s Murray-Darling Basin. Extreme weather events – more powerful hurricanes and deadlier heat waves – are occurring.
A great deal of the carbon that floats around in the atmosphere was produced by the U.S. So in the eyes of much of the world America has a responsibility to lead the way in preventing disaster. The United States, after all, is still the world’s largest economy and until very recently was the largest carbon polluter.
For eight years under President George W. Bush the United States dithered. Meanwhile other nations, most importantly the European Union (EU), took a leadership position. In Barcelona, the EU made it clear that it would cut carbon pollution 30 percent by 2020 if other nations made similar commitments, and 85 percent by 2050.
The EU also said it would cost $150 billion annually by 2020 to help developing nations make the transition to clean energy. EU leaders estimated that roughly half would come from public sources, and signaled it was ready to contribute $5 billion a year immediately and maybe as much as $35 billion annually over time.
China, India, Brazil, Indonesia and several more countries are also stepping to the front of the climate action crusade. According to Ailun Yang, a policy specialist with Greenpeace, China, now the world’s largest carbon producer, has promised to cut the growth of its emissions by what authorities termed a “notable margin” by 2020, and which Yang said would amount to a 15 to 30 percent reduction from carbon levels if China does nothing. Brazil has signaled its readiness to reduce timber cutting in the Amazon rainforest by 80 percent by 2020. Indonesia has announced a 26 percent carbon reduction by 2020.
The implication, said Yang, is that the United States can no longer hide behind the argument — as it’s done in the past — that developing nations are not bearing a share of the burden of solving climate change. “What we need to see is these efforts echoed by developed countries,” said Yang, whose rhetorical finger was pointed directly at Washington.
Even in the face of the mounting global pressure, the United States is departing from Barcelona and headed to the Copenhagen meeting next month without divulging the two targets the world is waiting to see. But its strategy has shifted.
Jonathan Pershing, the deputy special envoy for climate change and the chief American negotiator, sought during public and private meetings with national and regional delegations to assure the world that “the U.S. is committed to an ambitious global climate change agreement in Copenhagen. Meeting the climate and clean energy challenge is a top priority in the U.S. and with President Obama.”
How will the United States achieve that objective? In the short term by asking the world for more time and for a deeper trust. Instead of completing the treaty in December, as delegates hoped, the White House is asking the world to turn the results of the Copenhagen meeting into what President Obama this week called a “framework for progress.” Angela Merkel, the German chancellor who met with Obama in Washington on Wednesday, used almost precisely the same phrase in describing what looks to be the new goal of the Copenhagen meeting.
In effect, the U.S. is leveraging the storehouse of global good will for the new American president. In exchange for providing more time, President Obama is essentially telling the participating countries that he can deliver new climate and energy legislation in Washington early next year, and following that strong U.S. commitments to the new climate treaty.
How much longer the world will wait is unclear, as is the stability of the global negotiations. The Barcelona conference closed with delegates and climate advocates vigorously debating the risks and benefits of the U.S. strategy. Meanwhile in Washington, one bipartisan group of senators said they would accelerate work on the climate bill, while another senator said the measure was so controversial it could be put off indefinitely.
By week’s end the most significant result of the Barcelona meeting emerged out of this storm of uncertainty. Delegates and the nations they represent decided to continue their work and meet in Copenhagen. The most significant disappointment is that instead of completing the treaty in December, as delegates hoped, the negotiations will continue, though de Boer told reporters he thought the Copenhagen meeting would be a “turning point.”
The new global bet is that Washington will indeed pass legislation next year, probably by spring, to limit carbon emissions. Then 192 participating nations will finish an effective treaty that utterly changes how the world is powered, introduces a new way for the richer and poorer nations to share financial resources, and requires levels of cooperation and trust that world leaders have never before achieved. What we really learned last week in Barcelona is that progress on such momentous changes takes time.
Stay tuned for more from our ongoing Water + Climate series
Circle of Blue’s senior editor and chief correspondent based in Traverse City, Michigan. He has reported on the contest for energy, food, and water in the era of climate change from six continents. Contact