DOHA, Qatar -- The Senate's rejection yesterday of a treaty to extend rights to disabled people internationally does not bode well for a climate change treaty, observers here said today as the clock began to wind down on this year's U.N. climate talks.
The disabilities treaty failed to garner the two-thirds majority it needed despite a dramatic appearance on the floor by 89-year-old former Senate Republican Leader Bob Dole of Kansas, who urged senators to support the measure.
The talks that end this weekend are not expected to produce a treaty binding the United States and other countries to carbon reductions and climate aid contributions. Most delegates here hope that will happen in 2015. But three years does not seem like enough time to produce the sweeping change in the Senate that would be required for ratification.
Negotiators have been reluctant to discuss the prospects for ratification in the Senate. U.S. Deputy Envoy Jonathan Pershing sidestepped the question today, saying he doesn't have a "crystal ball."
But, he noted, "there are certain elements of an agreement that would make it impossible for us to ratify it." Specifically, he said, an agreement that did not put major economies like China on an equal legal standing with the United States would be a nonstarter for Congress.
Negotiators should consider this reality when charting a way forward, many observers on the sidelines of the Doha event said.
"Given the challenges of ratifying even something as innocuous as the disability treaty, we'd be smart to explore all possible options," said Elliot Diringer, an international climate expert for the Washington-based Center on Climate and Energy Solutions.
The platform adopted at the close of last year's talks in Durban, South Africa, called for an agreement with "legal force," to be negotiated by 2015 to take effect after 2020, but Diringer said that did not necessarily mean a new treaty.
Top U.S. climate negotiator Todd Stern has said at multiple events throughout the past week -- including an address to all parties -- that the United States is well on its way to meeting its commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 17 percent by 2020, which officials made in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 2009.
If the United States is able to meet its commitments anyway, Diringer said, it may be possible to structure a deal that doesn't need to be ratified.
"This is a wide-open negotiation at this point," he said.
Paul Bledsoe, an independent policy consultant who has worked on energy issues on Capitol Hill and in the Clinton administration, said Europe and the United Nations would have to give up their preferred mechanism of a treaty with binding targets, because that would not be possible for the United States.
The perception that such a treaty is the goal "undermines the political reputation of the entire U.N. process," he said.
"Every year we don't get an agreement on a legally binding treaty, the negotiations are considered a failure, no matter what other good things occur," Bledsoe added. "And a lot of other good things are occurring."
Negotiators would be wiser to embrace a form that allows countries to make commitments without being bound by a treaty -- something the United States could do, he said.
Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists said he thought the rest of the world would accept that the United States could not ratify a treaty, as long as it had adopted domestically binding restrictions on its carbon dioxide emissions by 2020 through the enacting of a climate law.
But he said the Senate might change enough in the next five or so years to allow for ratification, though he conceded that 67 Senate votes would have to mean "a pretty big change in the stance of Republicans and even some Democrats in the Senate."
Touting Obama accomplishments without outlining a future role
The U.S. delegation, meanwhile, has been pursuing a communications strategy throughout the conference of talking up the Obama administration's first-term accomplishments, like boosting vehicle efficiency, doubling renewable energy, moving away from coal-fired generation and generally bringing down emissions. Officials have been mum, however, on specific offers or goals for a second term.
Stern again hit on these themes during his plenary speech and at an event the U.S. delegation hosted today to tout its progress in reducing short-term climate forcers like methane and black carbon.
"Under President Obama's leadership, the United States has taken strong action at home," he told the body, providing a litany of accomplishments. He noted that the president has said, "We need to do more and we intend to do more."
But many delegates say they want more specifics about what the United States would do.
"I think the U.S. should play a more responsible role in the world if the U.S. would like to be the leaders," one Thai delegate said. "From our perspective, the U.S. keeps pushing for the Basic group and developing countries to contribute," she added, referring to countries like China, India and Brazil.
"But at the same time, the U.S. plays a very, very small role," she said, "which is not appropriate."
Bangladeshi advocates said yesterday that the United States continually blocked action, coming up with objections on everything from financing to the relative responsibilities of various countries. The United States caused negotiations to break down Monday night over efforts to quantify "loss and damage" to poor countries from climate change, for example.
"We need to be convinced that U.S. is making the extra effort," said Farah Kabir of ActionAid Bangladesh, one of the advocates. "It's an issue of trust-building."
Michael Oko of the World Resources Institute said that now would be a good time for Obama to assert some leadership on international climate policy with belief in climate change on an upswing at home.
"In Obama's second term, I think climate change is back in the public consciousness," he said. "And I think Obama has an opportunity in the second term to re-engage the international conversation on it and to show leadership on this issue."
But Meyer said he understood why U.S. negotiators were reluctant to talk specifics right now, because many of the administration's efforts to curb emissions will have to come through U.S. EPA regulation. And trumpeting those now with Washington locked in "fiscal cliff" discussions may not create an atmosphere conducive to negotiation.
"They probably won't want to focus on those decisions until they're through the fiscal cliff," he said. "That's where the bandwidth is going right now."