The U.S. is Hardly Alone

BANGKOK -- It’s no surprise, in the pre-Copenhagen posturing, that the United States is once again seen by many as the single greatest obstacle to an effective global climate effort.  The truth, though, is that the U.S. is hardly alone.  On all the key issues – emission targets, developing country commitments, and finance – other key players aren’t ready to strike a final deal either.

In his address last week to a high-level UN climate summit, President Obama offered an impressive list of early accomplishments.  Yet as was painfully evident, absent comprehensive legislation from Congress, the administration comes to the negotiating table with loads of good intention, but not yet prepared to take on binding international commitments.

Other countries, meanwhile, appear to be showing some movement. 

Both China and India, long viewed as the other principal barriers to agreement, are signaling a new willingness to act - at least domestically.  President Hu Jintao told the UN summit that China will set a goal to reduce its carbon intensity by a “notable margin.”  India’s government is talking about setting domestic goals to limit its greenhouse gas emissions.  These steps are encouraging, and may help inoculate the two countries against blame in the event Copenhagen is a failure.  But in neither case has the government offered specific numbers or said it is prepared to translate its actions into international commitments.

Yukio Hatoyama of Japan did come to the summit with a number.  Two weeks earlier, fresh from his landmark election victory, the new prime minister had set aside the previous government’s goal of reducing emissions 15 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, a target roughly in line with the numbers being debated in Washington.  In its place, he declared a far more ambitious goal of 25 percent below 1990 levels – provided other major economies pony up their fair share. 

Japanese officials have gone to great pains to keep the sudden switch from being seen as a deliberate affront to the United States.  Yet there’s no denying that, on the question of targets at least, Japan is now far more closely aligned with Europe than the U.S.

Seizing on this unexpected turn of events, Europeans are now ratcheting up the targets debate, blaming the U.S. for an “ambition gap” that stands in the way of a global deal.  It’s unclear whether they believe the renewed pressure will drive Congress toward a tougher U.S. target – one could argue it might just as easily backfire – or whether they simply want to ensure that the U.S. shoulders the blame if Copenhagen craters.

Whatever the motivations, the new moves on all these fronts serve to further isolate the United States, even as the prospects for U.S. action are stronger than ever.  Quite clearly, the fact that Congress has yet to pass comprehensive climate legislation constrains U.S. negotiators and, in turn, the negotiations themselves.  Still, the degree of U.S. culpability depends on what you think Copenhagen is really all about.

If the aim for Copenhagen were a full and final agreement – and if other countries were prepared for that – it would indeed be legitimate to fault the United States: we’re not ready.   But the reality is that few other countries are ready to bind themselves to specific commitments either.  And for that reason, as we’ve argued before, the best plausible outcome for Copenhagen is an interim political agreement establishing the basic framework within which countries can then negotiate a binding treaty.

If right now even an interim outcome appears at risk, the United States may be no more to blame than, say, China, India, Japan or the EU

Even without final action by Congress, the United States is in a position to negotiate a framework agreement.  But agreement on such a framework is possible only if the major developing countries accept that they, too, must take on commitments, something they’ve not yet done.  And they are very unlikely to until and unless the developed countries (including the United States) say what kind of support they’re prepared to deliver, which they’ve not done either.  The best the G-20 could muster last week was to ask finance ministers to report back in November.

The blame game is always a subtext in any high-stakes diplomacy.  If Copenhagen fails, there will be plenty of blame to go around.  Better, though, that we focus our energies on ensuring success.

Elliot Diringer is Vice President, International Strategies