Is the US becoming the bad guy of climate change talks again?

Under the Bush Administration, the United States was long the pariah of international climate change efforts.

But climate change negotiators, looking towards the big Copenhagen meeting in December, have welcomed the Obama Administration’s willingness to tackle climate change. The new president’s stance on the subject  at the G8 talks and the Major Economies Forum meeting in July was cause for optimism for various world leaders and climate officials.

The US Congress, however, isn’t necessarily going to match up to these high hopes, and as December draws near, other countries are showing signs of impatience.  

Developing countries are quite clear that they want richer countries to bear a bigger share of the cost of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  The finer points of how much is actually offered and viewed as acceptable are still up for negotiation. But Europe, at least, has begun talking about actual numbers for both public and private sector financial transfers to help developing countries reduce their emissions. Todd Stern, the US climate change envoy, shied away from commenting on this figure when asked by the FT earlier this week.

Meanwhile the US congress remains mired in a deeply divisive healthcare debate, which looks like stalling the chances of legislation committing to carbon reductions being passed. Stern says the US will have a good negotiating position at Copenhagen even if it fails to pass the legislation before the December meeting.

But a statement by the EU’s ambassador to the United States last night left little room for ambiguity. John Bruton was brief but rather dramatic:

“It is suggested that the U.S. Senate may not, after all, deal with the climate change issue until next year, when the UN Conference on Climate Change in Copenhagen is over and the delegates have gone home. If this were to happen, it would open the United States to the charge that it does not take its international commitments seriously, and that these commitments will always take second place to domestic politics.

The United States is just one of the 190 countries coming to this Conference. But the United States emits 25 percent of all the greenhouse gases that the Conference is trying to reduce.

Is the U.S. Senate really expecting all the other countries to make a serious effort on climate change at the Copenhagen Conference in the absence of a clear commitment from the United States?

Of course we must be realistic about what politics can and cannot achieve, and temper our ambitions accordingly. And this applies to international politics just as much as it does to the legislative agenda of the U.S. Senate.

I submit that asking an international Conference to sit around looking out the window for months, while one chamber of the legislature of one country deals with its other business, is simply not a realistic political position.”

Bruton, like other EU officials (and indeed the rest of the world), knows that the prospects for meaningful US action are far better under the Obama Administration. But what he seems to be saying to the Senate is that blaming domestic politics for a delay in passing a climate change bill will be seen as a cop-out.

Related links:

EU worries US dragging its feet on climate change (Reuters, 17/09/09)
Global insight: Who would want to be Barack Obama in Copenhagen? (FT, 17/09/09)
G8 critics miss the point (FT Energy Source, 10/07/09)

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