DURBAN, South Africa -- Along the coast of the shark-infested Indian Ocean where the United Nations global warming negotiations are being held, the United States increasingly is being viewed as a pariah.
Despite the presence of thousands of Obama supporters in this sub-tropical surf city, even liberal environmental activists at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change conference say disappointment and frustration toward the administration have reached new levels.
The past several days of talks have seen the U.S. seemingly unwilling to discuss more ambitious ways to avoid the most severe impacts of climate change. China, meanwhile, has softened its once hardline position, indicating it could be willing to make binding carbon cuts.
As countries head into ministerial-level negotiations, the dynamic appears to have left the U.S. isolated and vulnerable to attack by disillusioned former friends. Over the weekend, thousands of people marched on the U.S. embassy and deputy negotiator Jonathan Pershing -- once beloved by environmentalists -- was the subject of a Greenpeace stunt called "Bullshit Bingo."
"It has become clear that nothing can be accomplished in the U.N. talks in Durban unless the U.S. stands aside," Greenpeace declared.
Many now are openly talking about the possibility of another "Bali moment," a reference to the 2007 climate conference in which a Papuan negotiator told the much-reviled Bush administration team to "lead or get out of the way."
"The U.S. is a block to progress at every turn here in Durban," said Karen Orenstein, international policy campaigner for Friends of the Earth.
"If we stay on the current trajectory and end up in a world of runaway climate change that causes severe drought in Africa and sinks small island states, future generations would be correct to look back and blame the U.S., including Obama's team in Durban," she said.
'Nobody understands U.S. politics'
Martin Khor, director of the Third World Network, a coalition of nonprofits in developing countries, said at this point most countries expect very little from the American team.
"Nobody understands U.S. politics, but they know Obama and the Congress don't get on. The feeling is, Obama can't get anything. He can't even get a budget bill passed, much less a climate bill," he said. "The U.S. should just say, 'We're not sure what we can do, but the rest of the world should go on.'"
The central fight here is over the future of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol and what, if anything, comes next. The first phase of the treaty, which requires that industrialized countries cut carbon but makes no demands on developing countries including major ones like China, ends next year.
Japan, Canada and Russia say they will not take new targets under Kyoto. The European Union has said it will commit to a second phase as long as all major emitters -- China and the United States -- agree to a "roadmap" for a future legally binding agreement that ropes in everyone.
"Those who will not be part of this really take on a very big responsibility," E.U. Commissioner for climate action Connie Hedegaard told ClimateWire.
Yet so far this idea has not gone over well with either the U.S. or the major emerging countries.
"Our objective should not be to launch a new process for a new climate treaty," said J.M. Mauskar , India's lead negotiator. He said India is not opposed to a legally binding treaty, but like many developing countries argued that they first want to see wealthy industrialized nations make good on past promises.
"The fact that the Kyoto Protocol is binding has not made it perfectly followed by those who signed it," noted Brazil's chief negotiator Ambassador André Correa do Lago.
The U.S., meanwhile, has made clear that it won't even talk about a new treaty unless it is agreed from the outset that all major emitters will be bound by the same legal obligations.
"These conditions are not ripe yet," a senior U.S. administration official said Sunday. "I say that with not an ounce of criticism. Major economies on the developing side are not prepared to make these commitments. ... Perhaps for quite different reasons we feel the same way."
Some in the rumor-laced corridors of Durban's International Conference Center see outright collusion between the U.S. and the major developing country block of Brazil, South Africa, India and China (BASIC) in avoiding a mandate coming out of Durban toward a legally binding regime.
"There appears to be an alignment of interests between the U.S. and BASIC," said a leading small island state negotiator who asked to remain anonymous. "We know that they are meeting behind the scenes to discuss where their convergent interests are."
China says it might accept binding cuts
Asked about such meetings, South African lead negotiator Alf Wills said that if they are taking place, his country is not a party to them. "There's all kinds of conspiracies. All parties are talking," he added.
Neither the U.S. nor India outright denied such meetings, but said bilateral talks are routine. "We meet at least half a dozen times in different forum every day, maybe in a corridor, maybe over a cup of tea or whatever. It's part of the negotiations. ... We meet and discuss all kind of things," India's Mauskar said.
Meanwhile, China drastically changed the atmosphere in the past two days when the country's lead negotiator and later Vice Minister of the National Development and Reform Commission Xie Zhenhua indicated in a meeting with non-governmental groups that if certain conditions were met, China could accept being legally bound to cut carbon.
Xie said that China's conditions include the E.U. and other countries agreeing to a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol; a follow-through on commitments countries made to deliver $30 billion in immediate aid to vulnerable nations by 2012 and a process to ramp up toward another promised goal of $100 billion annually by 2020; and a "clear adherence to the principles of equity and common but differentiated responsibilities," according to Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists.
U.S. officials cast doubt on Xie's remarks, noting that this is not the first time China has floated the notion it might someday take legally binding targets.
"I don't think there's a fundamental difference," in the new Chinese statements, a senior Obama administration official said. "I don't think China is looking to sign up to legal obligations. My guess is the objective of some of these conditions are to state things that aren't likely to happen."
But perceptions are everything in this process, and right now the perception for many is that China is constructively engaging while the U.S. is not. Andrew Light, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, suggested that China is backing the United States into a corner.
"All the E.U. has asked for is a commitment to consider a post-Kyoto binding agreement. The U.S. has said they won't do it unless such an agreement could potentially bind China and other major developing carbon polluters as well. China appears to have said yes to this deal. If this is true, then it will be very hard for the U.S. to say no," Light said.
David Waskow, international climate policy director for Oxfam America, said he sees a "real potential" that the E.U. could forge an agreement with the BASIC countries and other developing nations on a post-2020 deal to fight climate change.
"The question is, where is the U.S. in all of that?" he said. "I think the prospects that we get something like a Bali moment where there is a coalescing around an agreement and the U.S. isn't ready to go there... are substantial."
At this point, several diplomats said, all eyes are not on the United States but on China.
"China is quietly spending so much money on renewables. Nobody else is doing this. They really have an upper hand in these negotiations," said Mohamed Shareef, deputy minister of the Maldives' environment department.
"We believe is something good comes out of Durban, it will be China who will be leading it," Shareef said.
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