President Obama today unveiled key details of the U.S. negotiation position headed into next month's global warming talks in Copenhagen, including a provisional greenhouse gas emissions target for 2020 "in the range of 17 percent below 2005 levels" and a new itinerary that includes a personal appearance during the opening days of the U.N. conference.
The White House said Obama will put the 2020 target on the bargaining table "in the context of an overall deal in Copenhagen that includes robust mitigation contributions from China and the other emerging economies." Obama's emission goals closely parallel action on Capitol Hill, including the House-passed climate bill and a Senate measure that Democratic leaders hope can reach the floor with enough votes by next spring.
"This provisional target is in line with current legislation in both chambers of Congress and demonstrates a significant contribution to a problem that the U.S. has neglected for too long," the White House said in a press release, adding that Obama was "working closely with Congress to pass energy and climate legislation as soon as possible."
Obama also spelled out his own plans to speak in Copenhagen on Dec. 9, 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, where diplomats launched the underlying global warming treaty that started the whole process. Obama's speech is likely to be the focal point for the first week of the U.N. conference, with the president expected to nudge negotiators toward a new, legally binding international treaty that can be completed between June and December of 2010.
"This could be one hell of a global game changer with big reverberations here at home," said Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.). "For the first time, an American administration has proposed an emissions reduction target, and when President Obama lands in Copenhagen, it will emphasize that the United States is in it to win it. This announcement matches words with action."
Kerry, the Democrats' lead legislator on the Senate global warming bill, stressed that Obama's provision target is "contingent on the support of Congress" but still outlines a politically important path for both developed and developing nations to follow as they outline their own plans for reducing emissions.
"It lays the groundwork for a broad political consensus at Copenhagen that will strip climate obstructionists here at home of their most persistent charge, that the United States shouldn't act if other countries won't join with us," Kerry said. "It is an enormous shot in the arm for those of us working overtime to get a comprehensive bill passed in the Senate. And the fact that the president will attend the Copenhagen talks underscores that the administration is putting its money where its mouth is, putting the president's prestige on the line."
Obama's move comes as sources in Beijing confirm that Chinese officials will announce on Friday their own carbon intensity target. Last month, Chinese President Hu Jintao declared China would reduce greenhouse gas intensity per unit of gross domestic product by "a notable margin," but he did not name a number.
Analysts familiar with Chinese leadership discussions say the government may commit to reducing carbon intensity between 40 and 45 percent. That has the potential to backfire with U.S. lawmakers, though, since energy experts consider that goal to be in line with China's business-as-usual emissions trajectory.
John Watson, a research professor in the division of atmospheric sciences at the Desert Research Institute in Reno, Nev., praised the work China is doing on energy intensity, renewable energy and a number of other fronts to address climate change. But he also called carbon intensity targets a "diversion" from where nations' attention needs to be: reducing absolute emissions.
"The atmosphere doesn't care how much money we make," Watson said. "We really have to get serious about reducing the absolute amounts."
Members of Congress were notably underwhelmed when President Hu made his initial announcement about a carbon intensity plan. It remains to be seen how they will react to China's newest numbers, but activists in China said they are prepared for America to voice disappointment.
"I think the United States will welcome the Chinese figure but say it's not enough," said Ailun Yang, Greenpeace China's climate director in Beijing. "It's what every big player will do to one another."
Others experts cautioned that scientists and economists in China are still doing last-minute calculations. "I think there's huge uncertainty," said Deborah Seligsohn, a senior fellow based in Beijing for the World Resources Institute think tank. "I think there's a wider range" than 40 to 45 percent, she said.
To go to Copenhagen, or not to go
The Obama administration today also said that many key officials on energy and environment are scheduled to be in Copenhagen for the Dec. 7-18 conference, including Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, U.S. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, Council on Environmental Quality Chairwoman Nancy Sutley and Carol Browner, Obama's top aide on energy and climate.
Following the European Union's example, U.S. officials have booked their own pavilion at the Copenhagen conference center that the White House said will provide "a unique and interactive forum to share our story with the world." That includes touting action in Congress to pass climate legislation, as well as $80 billion approved earlier this year through the economic stimulus package that Obama officials say will double renewable energy generation within three years.
The timing of Obama's appearance in Copenhagen is linked to an already-scheduled trip to the region: a Dec. 10 visit to Oslo to accept the Nobel Peace Prize.
The White House did not say if Obama would return to Copenhagen at the end of the negotiations, when the Danish hosts are expecting at least 65 world leaders to help hammer out a final political agreement that gives the contours of next year's negotiation plan. Among other things, U.N. officials are weighing a new deadline to complete talks on an international accord that could replace the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, including either June 2010 or at the next annual summit scheduled for Mexico City in December.
Greenpeace USA climate policy adviser Kyle Ash urged Obama to return to Denmark for the end of the negotiations. "This is when he is needed to get the right agreement," Ash said, who also chided Obama for making a stop in Copenhagen earlier this fall as part of Chicago's unsuccessful bid to host the 2016 Summer Olympics.
"Again the right city, again the wrong date," Ash said. "It seems that he's just not taking this issue seriously."
Obama's decision to even stop in Copenhagen wasn't easy. The Senate is expected to be in the midst of a fierce floor debate over health care legislation throughout December, and the president's role in Washington is expected to be critical, given the narrow margins of success to move the administration's signature domestic priority.
Regarding Copenhagen, many prominent observers of the climate debate warned in recent weeks that an Obama visit could be seen as catering to demands from Europe, a move that could anger some U.S. lawmakers. Former State Department negotiators, including the Clinton administration's Frank Loy, cautioned against Obama stopping in Copenhagen, saying the risks were too high.
Several noted that with the climate talks at such an uncertain stage, Obama would run the risk of coming home empty-handed.
"There's no guarantee that he wouldn't get egg on his face in some manner," one analyst said. "That's not good for anybody. It's not good for the climate debate, and it's not good for the president."
Several skeptics on global warming science pounced on Obama's trip.
"It's well known that President Obama likes photo ops, and I guess he likes Copenhagen, too," said Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute. "I wonder, however, whether he should want to be associated with another failure like his appearance on behalf of Chicago's Olympic bid."
Ebell also recalled the recent history on U.N. climate negotiations and predicted Obama would run into trouble on Capitol Hill as he tries to bring back an international accord that doesn't have sufficient support.
"Making a commitment to reduce emissions when there is little chance that the Congress will ever pass legislation to meet that commitment is repeating the same mistake that then-Vice President Gore made in Kyoto in 1997," he said. "Any such commitment by President Obama is close to dead on arrival. The president should stay home and try to deal with some real issues, such as our economic slump."
Senate Environment and Public Works Committee ranking member Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) linked Obama's visit to the recent controversy over the illegal release of thousands of private e-mails from well-known climate scientists that he says justify skeptics' long-standing objections to the mainstream idea that humans are driving global warming.
"Given all of the recent revelations about global warming and Climategate, I suspect President Obama is making the trip to Copenhagen in order to 'save' the climate conference," Inhofe said in a statement. "Yet rather than rush to a United Nations global warming conference, I suspect most Americans would rather our president focus on our American economy and help put Americans back to work. The fact remains that international UN climate treaties would severely undermine our economy, ship jobs overseas, and raise energy prices."
Obama's moves on emission targets and visiting Copenhagen also won accolades from Democrats, environmentalists and even a former top adviser to President George W. Bush.
"By putting a serious number for U.S. emission reductions on the table, the president just called the world's bet and then raised it for our negotiating partners," said Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), a lead co-sponsor on the House-passed climate and energy bill. "The president's attendance in Copenhagen demonstrates his personal commitment to getting a deal that is good for the U.S. and good for our clean energy future. It's a powerful statement that the U.S. is back, ready to lead the world."
"In the effort to protect the planet from climate change, these are the most significant travel reservations ever made," Markey added. "With one trip to Copenhagen, President Obama will bring the United States to the climate table, putting U.S. leadership back on the map in the effort to fight carbon pollution."
David Waskow, climate change program director at Oxfam America, said Obama's decision helps to revive expectations about the prospects in Denmark.
"I think this is a really important step," he said. "It flies in the face of all the predictions that Copenhagen wouldn't amount to much."
Waskow praised the 2020 emissions target but added, "We think even more needs to be done on emissions and it's very clear that the United States needs to bring long-term funding to the table in the negotiations for Copenhagen to be a success."
"It's a clear signal to the world and the Congress that he's committed to solving global warming," said Jake Schmidt, international climate policy director at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Jim Connaughton, the former White House environmental adviser to President George W. Bush now working for Baltimore-based Constellation Energy Inc., said, "The president's goals are both ambitious and reasonably achievable. If other major countries pursue comparably constructive goals, we can cut a lot of emissions while sustaining economic growth. The U.S. is already well on its way toward the president's 2020 goal, and new cap-and-trade legislation and financial incentives, done right, can ensure that we make the transition to a cleaner energy system in the most cost-effective way."