The Senate's failure to approve sweeping global warming legislation should not be blamed for a failure to reach a global agreement on greenhouse gas emissions at U.N. talks in Copenhagen, two key senators said today.
"You know what, we'd get blamed at Copenhagen if we acted or if we didn't act," said Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, the ranking Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. "It is what it is."
The committee chairman, Democrat Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, said the United States heads into Copenhagen on solid footing because of the overall direction of the "bottom up" international negotiations, which has every country preparing its own set of domestic policies that will be subject to international verification.
"It's pretty clear that there seems to be a developing consensus that we want a more flexible opportunity for all countries to achieve greenhouse gas emission reductions," Bingaman told reporters following a hearing on the intersection of U.S. climate legislation and U.N. talks, which run Dec. 7-18.
Bingaman added, "The idea that the only test of a country's ability to achieve greenhouse gas reductions is whether they adopt a formal cap is just not necessarily the appropriate measure."
President Obama and other key world leaders last weekend agreed to focus on a political agreement during the Copenhagen negotiations, pushing back until 2010 the details of a new international treaty.
Speaking today in China, Obama defended the U.S. role headed into Copenhagen. "Our aim there ... is not a partial accord or a political declaration, but rather an accord that covers all of the issues in the negotiations, and one that has immediate operational effect," the president said.
"This kind of comprehensive agreement would be an important step forward in the effort to rally the world around a solution to our climate challenge," Obama said. "And we agreed that each of us would take significant mitigation actions and stand behind these commitments."
But some environmental groups say the United States is slowing down progress.
"There is absolutely no consensus on a weak outcome in Copenhagen, that is clear," said Kaisa Kosonen, a Greenpeace international climate policy adviser. "It's also clear that President Obama is personally lowering the world's expectations, using a 'No, we can't' attitude instead of being the change he said he would be."
During today's Senate hearing, several senators said the Obama administration faces a tough challenge headed into Copenhagen now that there is widespread acknowledgment that the Senate won't be voting over the next month on domestic climate and energy legislation.
The Senate bill's sponsors now say they won't be ready to reach the floor until next spring at the earliest, after action on health care and financial regulatory reform. "We're obviously not going to be doing that prior to Copenhagen," Murkowski said. "Do we walk into Copenhagen with this label that the U.S. has failed?"
'Int'l community would like a clear answer'
Experts on both the U.S. climate debate and the broader international climate say perceptions do matter, even if the Senate is not to blame for what happens in the climate negotiations.
"At some point, the international community would like a clear answer about what the U.S. is able to offer," explained Nigel Purvis, a former State Department climate negotiator who now runs the consulting group Climate Advisers. "At most, I think we have maybe six months or maybe a year for the Congress and the president to find common ground and to establish a new set of agreements or actions that we'll be offering to the international community."
Michael Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations said there is a "really polarized debate" between people who say the United States' leadership will drive other countries to the bargaining table and others who say it does not matter either way.
"The reality lies in between those," Levi said. "Unfortunately, as long as we don't have a comprehensive climate policy here, the bulk of the international discussions will be focused on what the U.S. is and isn't doing. And particularly, our European friends will spend a very large fraction of their time focusing on what the United States is and isn't doing."
Levi added, "Once we start to move at home, we can start to move beyond that. And we've seen that when the United States and the Europeans line up in their positions toward developing countries, we can make considerably more progress. To get to that point, we're going to have to remove this as a debating point across the Atlantic."
Karen Harbert, the president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Institute for 21st Century Energy, said the international climate negotiations should shift from the heavy focus on whether the United States passes a cap on greenhouse gas emissions.
"We need to put to rest the idea that if the U.S. goes first, China, India and other large-emitting economies will fall into line with binding commitments of their own, something they remain adamant in opposing," Harbert said. "This remains an unjustified article of faith that carries with it considerable risk."