As activists gathering this week for U.N. climate talks in Warsaw, Poland, fuel hopes for a 2015 legally binding treaty, U.S. lawmakers already are throwing cold water on the prospects.
In interviews this week with members of Congress on the right and left, even the most ardent supporters of international efforts to curb global greenhouse gas emissions said chances of Senate approval for a treaty have not improved much since the Kyoto Protocol crashed and burned in Washington, D.C., in 1997.
"It will be difficult to get a treaty passed in 2015 in the U.S. Senate as it is presently constituted," said Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who co-chairs the Senate Climate Change Clearinghouse, aimed at supporting legislation to cut carbon emissions.
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) agreed: "I am for global action on climate change. I am a proud supporter and very anxious for the U.S. to participate globally." But, he added, "I think if you look at the current makeup of the U.S. Senate, it's very difficult."
The Obama administration and nearly 200 other governments have pledged to devise a new international pact to curb global emissions, expected to go into effect by 2020. Talks this week in Warsaw and over the next two years will hammer out the contours of that deal -- including whether it is a formal agreement under international law or something looser and more fluid.
The United States is pressing for a "flexible" agreement in which each country decides what level of cuts it is able to offer the world, and a combination of strict reporting and peer pressure from the international community helps ensure that collectively the efforts are enough to avert catastrophic warming.
Whether it will ultimately become a "protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force," as the tortured language of a 2-year-old U.N. agreement laying out the options for the 2015 deal offers, is unclear, and Obama officials have not formally stated a preference.
But U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern cautioned in a speech last month: "Keep our eyes on the prize of creating an ambitious, effective and durable agreement. Insisting that only one way can work, such as an agreement that is internationally binding in all respects, could put that prize out of reach."
If the deal winds up being a treaty, Republican opponents of climate action have said, it won't get far -- even if, as the Obama administration has insisted, it puts major economies like China on an equal legal standing with the United States.
"It's not going to go anywhere. It's dead on arrival," said Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), who argued that new U.S. EPA authority imposing carbon dioxide emissions limits on new power plants is "hurting our economy on a daily basis."
And Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who maintained that "there is a lot of difference of opinion among very educated people on the science" of global warming, said he, too, does not believe a treaty would pass muster in the Senate.
"I kind of doubt it," he said. "There is still a legitimate question of science, and you can't brush that away."
Others say the political winds in Congress might shift enough in the next few years that support for a treaty might be possible by 2015.
Fresh from a Wednesday briefing of the Bicameral Task Force on Climate Change on a study that showed strong public support for federal climate action, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) yesterday said he saw "seismic shifts" in the political landscape.
"I think this is an issue that can flip very quickly," said Whitehouse, who chairs the task force with Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.).
For one thing, he said, President Obama's Climate Action Plan, released in June, which includes the EPA regulations, will "put a lot of costs on polluters and cause them to rethink the wisdom of an economywide carbon fee." For another, the emergence of donors like billionaire climate activist Tom Steyer means industrial donors may not always have the upper hand when it comes to political spending over the climate debate.
"If we can organize the armies on our side, it's a rout," Whitehouse said. "We just haven't bothered to organize them."
He argued that if climate change is seen to have been an important issue in the 2014 midterm elections, Republicans competing for their party's presidential nod the following year might move away from a hard-line position against cutting carbon.
"So all that adds up to 2015 being a pretty good year," Whitehouse said. Climate change legislation might again be possible, and the United States might be better-positioned to support a U.N. climate change agreement, he said.
Waxman said he believes a global agreement on carbon dioxide emissions will be necessary.
"This problem is global, not just related to any one country or only one region," he said. "We need an international effort, and I think there's growing support for that in the United States."
Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) said the United States needs to focus first on putting its EPA regulations into play and proving it is taking its domestic emissions seriously.
"We need to set a good example to the rest of the world," Carper said. "That way, when we call on China and India and other big emitters, we can say not only 'Do as I say,' but 'Do as I do.'"
Markey said, "Increasingly, the U.S. is being viewed as a leader. Especially if the administration takes action on coal-fired power plants, I think it will be very hard, then, for China and India to say the U.S. is not acting."
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who sponsored two cap-and-trade bills in the last decade, said he thinks "some kind of catastrophe" might be required to spur action on climate change.
"I think it's real, and I think that we should continue to explore our options to reduce the effects of it," McCain said, but he added he has not liked "anything I've seen lately" through the U.N. climate process to address the issue. Still, he said the United States should remain involved internationally.
"I don't think talking hurts," McCain said. "It probably helps."