In early 2009 the great hope – at least among those who see the climate change threat clearly – was that the Copenhagen climate summit would be the historic moment when the world would come together to agree on a binding treaty to curb greenhouse gas emissions sufficiently by 2050 to save the planet from catastrophic climate change.

This was not an unreasonable hope.  The timing was propitious.  The Bush administration was out of office; its unproductive, even obstructionist, presence in international climate negotiations would no longer be a factor working against progress. President Barack Obama had promised strong action on climate change during his campaign, and now it seemed he could deliver on that promise with the support of large Democratic majorities in both chambers of the U.S. Congress.

For the first time in almost a decade, the United States – the nation that is unquestionably a pivotal player, if not the pivotal player, in international climate negotiations – would finally be free to pursue a constructive course, perhaps even lead the way to a new treaty.  The sleeping giant of climate change would finally awaken from its slumber of the Bush years.  That was the hope anyway.

Unfortunately, on the eve of Copenhagen, this scenario seems remote.  The consensus among international climate experts is that a binding agreement is not possible at the summit.  Several factors are at play – the exceedingly complicated bargaining dance between developed and developing nations over a range of issues should not be discounted – but primary among them is the slow progress of the Obama administration.  The United States appears not yet fully ready to come to the bargaining table.

Obama’s original goal was for the United States to have a new cap-and-trade climate law in place before Copenhagen.  Such an achievement would have firmly set the U.S. bargaining position at the international level, thereby giving the world clarity on what was politically feasible for the United States at Copenhagen.  Yet the forces opposed to the regulation of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States – the fossil fuel industry, climate change deniers, and right-wing politicians –proved to be much more formidable than many initially believed, particularly in the heady days after Obama’s overwhelming election victory.  These groups have powerful tools of delay at their disposal, not the least of which are the daunting procedural hurdles built into the U.S. Congress, such as the filibuster in the Senate, which the Republicans now employ to require 60-vote supermajorities in favor of almost any major bill proposed by the Democrats.  The current prediction of those who read the Congressional tea leaves is that a climate bill will not be on President Obama’s desk for signature into law until sometime in the summer of 2010 – if it makes it there at all.

So this much we know.  The U.S. delegation will arrive at Copenhagen next week effectively lacking the full political authority necessary to negotiate a binding treaty.  They will not, in other words, come bearing the imprimatur of a new U.S. climate law.  The pessimistic view is that this fact guarantees Copenhagen will be a failure.  The thinking is simple and understandable – no U.S. climate law means no international climate treaty.  Without a clear view of the emission reductions the United States can commit to, other major emitters will not reveal their commitments either.  Copenhagen will be an unproductive stalemate.

This view is only partially right, however.  Yes, agreement on a binding treaty at Copenhagen would require a diplomatic miracle at this point.  But so much of consequence is still achievable at the summit that it would be unwise to dismiss the opportunity to make real progress. In the race against catastrophic climate change, making Copenhagen the penultimate meeting matters very much.

So what factors will make Copenhagen matter?

First, the Obama administration needs it to matter for domestic political reasons.  Obama probably knows he needs to start accumulating successes that fire up his base of political support for the Congressional mid-term elections in 2010.  The latest polls show his approval ratings slipping below 50 percent for the first time in his young presidency. While some of that decline is due to hardening opposition among conservatives, more appears attributable to the perception on the left that Obama has been disappointing on their issues.  Climate change is a signature issue for his strongest supporters.  A Copenhagen that moves the world forward in a visible and tangible way – especially if Obama’s hand is seen in that progress – would help Obama begin to change the political dynamics back at home.  That Obama has recently decided to attend the opening days of Copenhagen suggests that he sees this potential political upside.

Second, for the first time during the multi-year negotiations for a successor climate treaty to the Kyoto Protocol, the United States has actually played a meaningful hand at the bargaining table:  Obama has recently stated that the United States will provisionally commit to greenhouse gas emission reductions “in the range of” 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 and 83 percent by 2050.  This is the long-awaited opening move by the United States.  And although the move is not as strong, or as firm, as some hoped it would be, it is nevertheless a move that places pressure on the remaining major emitters who have been reluctant to state clear commitments to also announce their moves.  Copenhagen thus could be the place where all of the major players show their respective hands and we begin to see where the game really stands and what strategic paths forward might be open.  This is an absolutely necessary step for coming to a final agreement.

Third, the Obama negotiating team is not caught up on form.  They have determined that if a binding treaty is not possible at Copenhagen, then alternative kinds of agreements to address the threat of climate change still are and should be pursued with all vigor.  This is why Obama has recently stated that he wants to see Copenhagen produce an agreement of “immediate operational effect.”  What might such an agreement look like?  The hints lay in two important diplomatic developments that have received little fanfare in the last few weeks.  Obama’s climate negotiators have worked in recent months to develop separate cooperative plans on climate and energy matters with China and India.  These efforts bore fruit when first China, on November 17, and then India, on November 24, agreed to such plans with the United States.

The plans have two characteristics in common: (1) a commitment to full transparency in any agreement reached at Copenhagen – specifically, agreement on the need to abide by international standards of measurement, reporting, and verification for greenhouse gas emissions in each country (in other words, an internationally credible carbon inventory); and (2) a commitment to engage in broad and sustained collaboration on clean energy research and development through numerous initiatives intended to speed the deployment of key, low-carbon technologies such as solar energy, wind energy, smart grids, and energy efficiency, to name just a few.  The plan with India also notably contained a commitment to an effort to halt deforestation in that country as a way to slow greenhouse gas emissions related to land use.

These plans offer a roadmap for the type of agreement that might come out of Copenhagen, one that is silent on binding national emission reduction targets, but does resolve the array of less controversial, yet still significant, matters, such as establishing an international system for verifying national carbon inventories, developing a trustworthy international system for investing in forests as carbon sinks, or creating international “best practice” centers for clean energy technology dissemination in the developing world.  Efforts of this kind could commence immediately, and Obama is right to recognize that they should not be stalled by the ultimate pursuit of a binding treaty on mitigation.  Seen in this way, then, Copenhagen is a critical opportunity to prepare the world for success in 2010.

Much can still go awry at the summit, of course.  Progress could remain elusive.  But the prevailing view of Copenhagen as a preordained failure is a view that overlooks too much.  With mere years available to us to begin significantly cutting greenhouse gas emissions before it is too late to forestall catastrophic climate change, any chance for meaningful progress towards a global climate agreement is a chance worth taking.

Copenhagen matters because it has to.

William E. Dornbos is the Associate Director of the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy.  An attorney, Mr. Dornbos has previously worked with the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the largest environmental advocacy groups in the United States, and with the Environmental Protection Bureau of the New York State Attorney General’s Office

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