Even as the Obama administration insists it can keep its Copenhagen climate pledges, U.S. lawmakers are warning that Congress won't deliver either big emission cuts or billions of dollars in promised aid for poor countries.
Republicans and Democrats alike undercut Obama's vow to slash America's emissions about 17 percent below 2005 levels this decade and help mobilize $100 billion annually by 2020 in return for commitments from developing nations. And, lawmakers warned, U.S. climate envoys at U.N. climate treaty talks in Cancun, Mexico, this month should not be getting the world's hopes up.
"Talk big when you can get something big done. Otherwise, lower expectations until you can deliver," said Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who is poised to take the chairmanship of the House Government Reform Committee next year.
Asked if he think the Obama administration overpromised in Copenhagen, Issa raised an eyebrow.
"You think?" he said.
The U.S. pledges that became part of the Copenhagen Accord political agreement drafted in the Danish capital last year actually are smothered in caveats. The Obama administration told the world it would make cuts -- but contingent upon Congress' ability to pass legislation. It vowed to mobilize money, but only if China and others agreed to a global emissions monitoring system.
Since that time, the Senate failed to pass legislation that would have triggered those emission cuts. Then Republicans swept the midterm elections, taking control of the House and winning a larger margin in the Senate. The result, analysts say: zero chance of sweeping climate change legislation in the near future and stiff resistance to sending billions of dollars overseas.
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said Obama went "went too far" in Copenhagen. But, he said, "You know, he's basically trying to get along with his side, and I do give him a lot of leeway on things like that."
The president can still 'hit singles'
Meanwhile, U.S. Special Envoy Todd Stern and Deputy Envoy Jonathan Pershing insist America is not backing down from those pledges.
"The president has also made, and we continue to affirm, the commitment that we made in Copenhagen last year. We are not moving away from that," Pershing said this week in Cancun. "Clearly, the next steps for implementing that are going to have to go through Congress, through regulation, through executive order. We will work on all of those tracks, all of those avenues, at home to implement those programs and meet that commitment."
Obama himself has acknowledged that any work to reduce America's greenhouse gas emissions would have to be done in "chunks" rather than a sweeping piece of legislation.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) abandoned his support of cap-and-trade legislation last year and now is pushing for a clean energy standard that includes nuclear energy, renewables and "clean coal." He said he is optimistic for the coming year.
Cap and trade, Graham noted, "has no future between now and anytime I can see." But he praised the Obama administration for being willing to increase investment in nuclear power, and argued that a clean energy standard could be touted abroad as well as at home.
"I think the president is going to be reasonable. I think he's going to hit singles, as he said," Graham said. "I just think the idea of hitting singles on energy is the right approach."
As for what Obama should tell the international community, Graham said, "I'm not telling him what to tell the world. I'm just telling him what can happen in the Senate."
Clouds form around the money pledge
Coming up with money is going to be a different story. Administration officials have stressed that the $100 billion will come in large part from the private sector, but developing countries are pushing hard for a good chunk to be public funding. Meanwhile, the United States also promised vulnerable countries $30 billion by 2012, largely from government coffers.
Yesterday, GOP Sens. John Barrasso (Wyo.), James Inhofe (Okla.), David Vitter (La.), and George Voinovich (Ohio) sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton telling her climate team to forget about funding adaptation, protection for tropical forests or any other international climate programs.
"We remain opposed to the US commitment to full implementation of the Copenhagen Accord, which will transfer billions of US taxpayer dollars to developing nations in the name of climate change," they wrote.
"We request that the administration freeze further spending requests to implement international climate change finance programs. This would include making no additional international commitments to fund such programs."
Even Democrats acknowledge that raising public dollars will be a hard sell. Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) said he thinks adaptation funding is critical. But he also wants it for Alaska.
"I'm of course biased here. I think we need adaptation for our own country first, and Alaska is huge. We have big issues of mitigation right now. We have erosion issues, we have villages literally falling into the ocean. Before we go too far to doing the work outside of this country, we need to be focused on this country first," he said.
National security issues may be a harder sell
Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), who championed climate legislation last year, has spoken at several U.N. conferences about the threats poor countries face from global warming. In Copenhagen last year, he told a large crowd that "because of our emissions, it's their crops that will disappear. Because of our inaction, it's their fields that turn to desert, and their people, who will be worst affected, are least equipped to meet this challenge."
But this week, Kerry took pains to note that American farmers care about adapting to the effects of climate change just as much as people in developing countries. As for whether funding for overseas climate aid could pass the Senate, he said, "it depends how that's framed."
One argument that isn't going to fly easily with newly empowered Republicans is national security. Military leaders broadly agree that the floods, droughts, crop failures and other catastrophes that will accompany rising global temperatures will mean a range of difficult new challenges for the U.S. military and American foreign policy.
Environmental activists have pushed that argument in recent years, in part hoping to encourage more security-minded Republicans to think about climate change in a new way and support both mitigation and funding efforts.
But Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, (R-Calif.), who is poised to chair the House Armed Services Committee next year, was incredulous.
"Climate change is a threat to national security?" he said. "Do I buy that global warming is a threat to national security? No."
Issa, meanwhile, said the Obama administration had better look outside of Congress for climate money.
"If you send Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush out, maybe they can collect the hundred billion," he said.
Reporter Jean Chemnick contributed.