President Obama may attend world climate talks in Copenhagen this December, marking the first visit to the annual U.N. conference by a sitting U.S. president since George H.W. Bush's 1992 trip to Rio de Janeiro.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told reporters yesterday that Obama is considering a visit to the global warming negotiations, where diplomats hope to reach agreement on a successor to the Kyoto Protocol.
"As you know, the second week of December there will be a major conference on global warming to which the president may go," the Maryland Democrat said. "I will probably go with him if that occurs."
Obama's attendance at the conference would cause a stir following President George W. Bush's often contentious relationship with the United Nations on climate issues. U.S. diplomats were booed at the 2007 meeting in Bali, Indonesia.
In 1992, then-President George H.W. Bush attended the meetings in South America during the heat of a presidential campaign. The Rio negotiations launched the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, the underlying global warming treaty that started the whole process.
In 1997, then-Vice President Al Gore went to Japan for the U.N. conference that culminated with agreement on the Kyoto Protocol. Former President Clinton also spoke on the sidelines of the 2005 conference in Montreal, a low point for diplomats as they struggled to maintain momentum with the Bush administration.
White House Council on Environmental Quality spokeswoman Christina Glunz declined to comment on the prospects of an Obama trip to Copenhagen because the event is still six months away.
Hoyer visited Denmark during the Memorial Day recess for meetings with Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Foreign Minister Per Stig Møller and other top officials. He said he touted the House Energy and Commerce Committee's recent approval of a sweeping climate bill, a key ingredient to the U.S. negotiating position.
"And they were very focused, as is, I think, all of Europe, on the success that we had in the climate change bill and their hopes that we will be able to move ahead," Hoyer said. "Obviously, America is the largest impactor on the environment in the world, and therefore, the world is very focused on what we may or may not be doing."
Other heads of state have appeared at climate meetings, including Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in Bali in 2007. The host country's leaders typically speak at the U.N. negotiations. Both Obama and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) were lobbied to attend last December's conference in Poland, but both declined.
Several other high-level U.S. officials also are expected in Copenhagen, including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.).
Sen. Robert Casey (D-Pa.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Obama's attendance in Copenhagen was a "scheduling question."
He added, "This president has provided more leadership on climate change than any president in history. If that will help move the ball forward, I'm sure he'll consider it. But I don't want to give the president scheduling advice."
Environmental groups would welcome Obama playing a role in Copenhagen.
"Having President Obama attend would raise the stakes of the meeting," Jake Schmidt, a climate expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in an e-mail from Bonn, Germany, where U.N. climate talks are in a preliminary stage this week. "He could help work through the difficult issues with other world leaders that can only be addressed through true presidential leadership."
Click here to read President George H.W. Bush's remarks at the Rio de Janeiro meeting in 1992.
Reporter Lisa Friedman contributed.