Top U.S. energy and climate leaders yesterday began to openly plan for international global warming talks to trickle into 2010.
Experts have predicted for months that a major U.N. summit in Copenhagen this December -- billed as the place 192 nations would complete a new emissions pact -- would not deliver by deadline. With health care reform now sucking all the political oxygen out of the U.S. Senate, and with countries still bickering over fundamental issues, completing a new treaty within three months is looking more and more improbable.
Key leaders are starting to say it out loud, and are putting the best face on what some are calling "Plan B."
"The mission is to get the most ambitious, most far-reaching accord that we can in Copenhagen, and to the extent that there's some things that need to be completed after that, then that will happen," U.S. climate envoy Todd Stern told reporters yesterday.
Meanwhile, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, traveling in Vienna, said Copenhagen is not a "now or never" chance to scale back global greenhouse gas emissions. He said the summit must make significant strides in advancing efforts to fight climate change. But, he added, "let's not make that one particular time the be-all, end-all, and say if it doesn't happen that we're doomed."
Elliot Diringer, vice president for international strategies at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, noted in a blog post yesterday that the United Nations likes to display a "Countdown to Copenhagen" digital clock at its conferences. But by this point, he said, it's obvious to everyone who keeps pace with climate negotiations that countries won't strike a deal before the clock runs out.
Sudden search for an 'interim deal'
"The reality is sinking in that a final deal isn't likely, and people are now scratching their heads to figure out what an interim deal might look like," he said.
The U.S. House in June passed cap-and-trade legislation. The Senate, consumed by health care, has yet to act. Earlier this week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) indicated that a climate and energy bill may have to wait until 2010, though he appeared to backtrack on those comments yesterday and said through an aide that he does intend to "deal with" climate this year.
A delay could pose a major problem. With memories of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol talks -- in which the Clinton administration helped write a treaty that the Senate refused to ratify -- negotiators this time around are keen to have explicit direction from Congress about what it is and is not willing to accept. Other nations, too, are unlikely to trust U.S. proposals without legislation to back up the promises.
"The first question I get any time I meet with anybody is, 'Where's the legislation? How's it going?'" Stern said yesterday at an event hosted by The Atlantic magazine. But he also said a signed bill is not absolutely necessary for Copenhagen.
"There will be negotiating ways it can be dealt with, as long as we are moving forward," he said. "I think the energy and climate bill will get done at the end of the day. I hope the end of the day is before December, but if it's not, it won't be."
Council on Foreign Relations Senior Fellow Michael Levi, who outlined a "Plan B" for the climate talks in the September/October issue of Foreign Affairs, said the absence of U.S. domestic legislation is only one of the hurdles and not even the biggest.
"There has been a working assumption amongst a lot of folks that if the U.S. gets the target right, then the deal happens. I don't think we're there," he said. But some of the biggest hurdles still remain: what fast-developing countries should be expected to do; how those developing country actions -- if ever agreed upon -- will be verified; and how much money industrialized nations need to deliver.
Levi and Diringer said they expect Copenhagen to set parameters for a treaty that can be filled in over the coming year and maybe even longer. Levi floated one scenario in which countries prepare proposals that outline how they plan to either reduce emissions or get onto a low-carbon pathway, as well as expectations for funding, and then those details are negotiated out under some type of U.N. registry. He also called for a standing Senate observer group that can monitor and stay plugged into the negotiations.