In Copenhagen, delegates and observers split on whether Obama’s entrance will bring the necessary jolt to talks

Publish date: December 17, 2009

COPENHAGEN – There was a bit of hope in the air today on the eve of the arrival of US President Barack Obama at the UN climate talks, and whether he knows it or not, many negotiating teams have imbued him with the strength of 10 men, painting him to be the David to slay the Goliath of disarray that has emerged in the day before the talks are slated to close.

To others, though, said Obama’s arrival means nothing at all, and to lay too much hope on the President who has carefully postured himself to be the deal breaker at the talks would be to continue polishing brass on the Titanic.

The arrival of Obama, after all, will bring with it the full expression of the American agenda, and more ambitious plans than the one to be presented by America – as already evidenced by this summit’s numerous walk-outs, stalemates, spiralling street protests and even some snarling cynicism during yesterday’s plenary session – have already drawn plenty of fire. Obama leaves Washington tonight and will arrive here tomorrow morning.

US officials in Copenhagen were yesterday at pains to declare both that Obama would be bringing nothing negotiators were not already aware of, while at the same time trying to wrench out promises that the US delegation is doing more to reduce the climate change threat than getting legislation passed by Congress.

“I would not bet on anything,” changing as a result of Obama’s arrival, said Bellona’s international director, Svend Soeyland. “It’s to early to say anything,” he said.

This morning’s talks began with another stalemate as UN Climate Chief Yvo de Boer bemoaned an “unexpected stop” in negotiations as a long awaited breakthrough expected Wednesday afternoon failed to materialise.

By Thursday morning, said one party delegate, the Bella Center was running at such a frenetic pace that its ubiquitous television screens advertising the whereabouts of certain negotiations and talks went blank as negotiators began to follow an ad hoc, word of mouth track of meetings.

US Senator John Kerry, head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and co-author of America’s touted, yet stalled climate legislation, yesterday clearly laid out what would be required in Copenhagen for the Congress to sign off on the bill.

He also sternly warned, speaking at one of the Bella Center’s many side auditoriums, as a plenary group was in session, that US promises are severely hampered by worries at home.

Kerry told the packed room that the United States would pass a cap and trade bill next year, but said Washington was balancing future temperature rises against present high unemployment rates and a trembling economy.

“To pass a bill, we must be able to assure a senator from Ohio that
steelworkers in his state won’t lose their jobs to China or India,” Kerry said. Stressing that he wasn’t “defending inaction” in the United States, he said it will be harder to convince already reluctant lawmakers to back climate legislation without accountability measures built into the international treaty.

“Shared responsibility must include a responsibility to share good-faith information about each country’s efforts,” Kerry told the group of party delegates and observers. “People need to trust the process, and that trust is built through transparency.

China and India have pledged to reduce what they call their carbon intensity – a measure of carbon dioxide in the air proportional to industrial growth – and other quickly emerging economies such as Brazil and South Africa have also made pledges.

All but China are solidly guarding the privilege to develop their goals independently. Washington, however, insists they be internationally monitored, passed on to the United Nations, and independently verified.

China, meanwhile, is somewhat closer to a transparency compromise with the United States – on of yesterdays’ very few breakthroughs at the talks, and the parties have discussed developing new guidelines through the reports that China and other countries already submit to the UN climate regime.

“I think the issue now is to work out the exact language,” said Ailun Yang, climate director for Greenpeace China, Greenwire reported. “I’m very confident that this can be resolved.”

Kerry said that, “Shared responsibility must include a responsibility to share good-faith information about each country’s efforts – people need to trust the process, and that trust is built through transparency.”

This transparency, said Kerry, is central to passing climate legislation in the US. Without “transparency,” he said, it’s unlikely the US Senate will approve domestic legislation to cut carbon emissions, said Greenwire.

Kerry also zeroed in on one of the key split that has belaboured talks since day one, and proposed that rich and poor countries be allow to take – in UN parlance – “common but differentiated responsibilities.”

“Let’s be honest here,” said Kerry. “Our common responsibility demands that if we are serious about solving climate change, then every country that contributes significantly to the problem or will contribute in the future must be involved in a way that is transparent and accountable.”

With literally hours left in the Copenhagen talks, and no substantive draft negotiating agreement in sight, he said, “this is a time for all of us to act boldly.”

Kerry insisted he was optimistic about agreement on a new pact. Yet US officials in Copenhagen are saying that Obama will not be arriving with anything beyond what are the already publicised goal of a 17 percent cut in emissions below 2005 levels and to pay a “fair share” into a 10 billion US dollars fund to help developing countries deal with climate change.

“We don’t want to promise something we don’t have,” Todd Stern, chief of the US delegation here in Copenhagen, told reporters this week during a briefing. He said he did not anticipate any change in the US commitment. “Our commitment is tied to our anticipated legislation. We don’t want to promise something we don’t have,” he said.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, too, kept a tight hold on expectations for the summit. Noting that there are remaining disagreements among delegates, he said the president “is hopeful that his presence can help” produce “a strong operational agreement, even as we work toward something even stronger in the future,” Agency France Press reported.

In recent days, US media have reported that the White House has choreographed a series of announcements and events in Washington designed to highlight those efforts — from tax breaks for renewable energy manufacturers to the president visiting a home remodelling store to declare it is “sexy” to better insulate your home.

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