POLITICS:

Diplomats head to sunny Cancun, but U.S. lawmakers stay home

Cancun, Mexico, may be the center of the global warming universe this week. But members of Congress say their thoughts are a world away from the international treaty talks.

From "the House is in session" to "I haven't thought about it," Republicans and Democrats alike have excuses aplenty for skipping the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change talks. The conference opened yesterday and goes through Dec. 10.

The apathy is palpable, and a far cry from the atmosphere last year when President Obama and the leaders of more than 100 other nations descended in droves upon the chilly Danish capital of Copenhagen to hawk their views at the climate circus. That conference saw U.S. congressional champions of cap-and-trade legislation as well as skeptics jostling to share their views on the prospects for American domestic action and a new international treaty.

"Cancun? For what?" Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) asked warily yesterday when questioned about his plans. Informed that the spring break hot spot was actually the site of an international effort to cut carbon emissions, Coburn was dismissive.

"No. I don't usually go to anything. That's a good enough reason," he said. "We got bigger problems than climate right now. It's called finance, how we get out of the hole we're in."

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who supported climate legislation last year, admitted that the global negotiations didn't make a bleep on her radar.

"I haven't really thought about it, to be honest with you," she said. But Feinstein denied that was because of the unpopularity of climate change these says.

Boxer sends statement, but no staff

"No -- no, no, no, it's just that I'm not on a committee related to it," she said. Her California colleague Barbara Boxer (D), who has made fighting climate change a signature issue, said she is too busy in the lame-duck session to go. Nor is she sending staff. Instead, Boxer said, "I'm sending a statement to Cancun."

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), whose state emits the most greenhouse gases in the United States and more than most countries, also pinned her expected absence on committee jurisdiction and said she wasn't invited to attend. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), meanwhile, said he plans to watch the proceedings from Washington.

"I like to hear both sides. I think it's one of the most -- the whole area of discussion is one of the most difficult and interesting [issues] in our lives, and I think it's overblown to a large degree, and I'd like to be able to at least continue my studies," Hatch said.

And Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) -- who has called global warming a hoax and for years traveled to U.N. climate summits to inform the international community that Congress has no intention of lowering emissions -- didn't blink when asked if he'll be in Cancun.

"No. That's a big surprise," he deadpanned.

Over in the U.S. House, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), who co-authored and championed cap-and-trade legislation last year, said the congressional schedule will prevent him from attending. He acknowledged that with the failure of the Senate to pass a climate bill this year, the mood of the international talks is subdued.

"They've got to be somewhat dispirited," Waxman said of U.S. negotiators. And he noted it will be difficult for the Obama administration to fulfill the promises it made in Copenhagen that America will both cut emissions and raise billions of dollars for poor countries.

"If the predominant view among Republicans is that there is no such thing as global warming and there should be no solution, I don't see much hope for getting legislation passed," he said. Still, he added, "I know the administration is going to do their best to fulfill their promise."

Last year, Waxman traveled to Copenhagen with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming Chairman Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and dozens of other lawmakers, their spouses and staff. The total bill, according to a CBS News report last year, topped $400,000.

Sensenbrenner: 'We're in session'

Pelosi has no plans this year to attend Cancun, said a spokesman. Neither does Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), the leading Republican on the House global warming panel and a staunch opponent of climate change legislation, who attended the Copenhagen talks. "We're in session" was the reason given by a Sensenbrenner spokesman.

The Copenhagen climate summit drew more than 45,000 delegates, activists, businesses and journalists. According to preliminary figures released by the United Nations last week, 1,243 journalists had registered in Cancun, along with 498 observer groups and 166 other parties.

The expectations also are more bite-sized. Activists in Copenhagan vowed to create a new global warming treaty to replace the 1997 Kyoto Protocol and fell short. Instead, President Obama and the leaders of other nations developed a nonbinding promise to cut carbon and raise money for developing nations. This year, negotiators say their goal is to lay the foundations that will enable countries to keep those lofty promises.

Michael Levi, an energy and environment fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the lack of congressional attention is "fine."

"The American people hate Congress right now. No one wants to send their staff to the beach in Mexico. It's completely understandable, and it's not going to do damage to U.S. policy or to the talks," he said.

Markey and Kerry: hopeful but iffy

Jake Schmidt, international policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, agreed.

"I'm not sure what having increased congressional attention would do," he said. "Would they wake up and say, 'OK, now we're going to pass a climate bill?' Not likely." He noted that Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Rep. Markey have been invited and will try to attend, and said there is a value in having lawmakers at the U.N. conference even if legislative action is at a standstill.

"It will be good to have these countries hear directly from these key members about what the prospects are in the U.S.," he said. "It doesn't hurt for them to hear it straight from the horse's mouth."

Markey spokesman Eben Burnham-Snyder said the congressman hopes to come, but "no final decisions have been made."

"Obviously, it depends on the congressional schedule," he said. "He wants to go, and he intends to go. We still need to show the rest of the world that we're not giving up trying to solve the climate problem. The politics may have changed, but the problems still remain."

Kerry was also noncommittal, saying the Senate schedule and discussions over the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia might keep him in Washington.

Still, Kerry said, he has high hopes for the climate talks and believes negotiators already are looking ahead to the 20th anniversary of the 1992 U.N. Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

"A lot of countries are going to be starting to move now on various non-capped ways of reducing emissions," he said. "I think they'll be setting up a process for the Rio Plus 20, which is really going to be the next moment."

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