COPENHAGEN -- U.N. climate talks are on life support as the Group of 20 nations and other countries plan an emergency meeting tonight, according to a lead Latin American negotiator.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown led the charge for the hastily arranged talks as rich and poor countries continue to remain at odds over the shape of the next international climate agreement.
Leaders, absent President Obama, will meet after a dinner tonight with the queen of Denmark. The closed-door talks are sure to spark another round of fighting as the two-week U.N. negotiations reach their end point tomorrow.
"At this stage, there's more people that don't know it than know it," the Latin American diplomat said. "Some countries that love to cause trouble, and there's a few that do, as soon as they find out are going to start screaming."
Jennifer Haverkamp, a senior counsel at the Environmental Defense Fund, said the high-level talks come at a useful time.
"If I were running these negotiations and I had all of the ministers for dinner, would I pick off the more influential ones and get them in a corner and see where we could agree?" Haverkamp said. "Yes."
The Latin American delegate also said many countries were putting high hopes in the fact that the heads of state can come to agreement, saying, "I hope these guys spend the night together, like the Rolling Stones said."
According to Sarkozy's office, high-level ministers and leaders from the following countries will participate: Australia, Algeria, Bangladesh, Brazil, China, Columbia, Ethiopia, the European Union Commission, Germany, France, Granada, India. Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Lesotho, Maldives, Mexico, Norway, Russia, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Sudan, United Kingdom, United States and Denmark. The U.N. secretary general's office will also be there.
The meeting comes as Obama prepares to board Air Force One for the Danish capital without any plans of his own to make any additional pledges when he speaks tomorrow during the closing hours of the negotiations.
In a background teleconference today with reporters, senior White House aides said the president has essentially put all his cards on the table -- including commitments by 2020 to curb U.S. emissions in the range of 17 percent below 2005 levels and an offer to help create $100 billion in financing that would go toward assisting the least-developed nations as they try to prepare for and tackle global warming.
"I do not expect the president to be announcing more specific commitments on financing," one Obama official said. "We've announced our short-term and our longer-term financing commitment, and I think we have demonstrated that the U.S. is willing to take all steps possible to try and deal with this issue and reach an agreement."
Obama leaves Washington tonight and will arrive in Denmark around 8 a.m. Copenhagen time (2 a.m. EST). The White House said the president would meet with Danish Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen, who earlier this week abruptly took over as president of the U.N. summit, before speaking at the U.N. talks around 10 a.m. local time.
"It won't be an extended set of remarks, but I think it will be an opportunity for him to speak to the importance of the issue, the steps that have been taken throughout the year, the shared responsibility that we all have, and of course, to the state of the negotiations as they are when he arrives," the White House official said.
Underscoring the fluid nature of the U.N. negotiations, Obama aides openly talked today about the possibility of a failure in Copenhagen and acknowledged that the president would arrive without knowing the fate of his trip beforehand.
"It's impossible at this point to anticipate where this will end, whether we'll have a final agreement or not," the official said.
Obama aides said the president would attend what is currently being billed as the closing plenary session of the conference. But they did not respond to a question about when the president planned to actually leave Copenhagen, or whether he would stay through the night in the event the U.N. talks went into overtime as they often do.
Plans to wrap up tomorrow
In an interview, U.N. climate chief Yvo de Boer said he was not expecting the talks to spill into Saturday morning, a signal that he would pull the plug tomorrow with or without an agreement.
"I don't think it'd make any sense when the leaders are left to reconvene a bunch of negotiators," de Boer said. "I think we should capitalize on a result while they're here."
The Obama officials stressed that the U.N. talks could still result in an "operational agreement" that paves the way for a new legally binding treaty next year -- a result that the conference's Danish hosts had originally spelled out as the plan for the negotiations.
To make their point, the White House staffers said there have been "fairly constructive" talks over the last 24 hours with Chinese officials over the issue of transparent oversight of the emission reduction pledges that come from fast-developing nations. The Chinese, they said, "have begun to move on that issue, and we look forward to working with them to try and resolve that issue."
Still, the Obama officials also took pains to downplay expectations for the president's second visit to Copenhagen in four months -- the last time having been an unsuccessful bid to land the 2016 Summer Olympics in his hometown of Chicago. Here, the White House aides said the stakes could not be higher.
"The president is, will be coming to probably the most complicated or complex international negotiations that he has seen as president in terms of the number of parties, the complexity of the issue, the dynamics of the negotiations, the crosscurrents among the coalitions," the official said, before adding, on an optimistic note, "and he will be very well positioned to try and have an impact here."
Failure at the U.N. talks could come for many different reasons. For one, the Obama officials highlighted rifts within the Group of 77, which includes some 130 developing nations. They also could break down over talks that the United States is not even involved in: what to do about the Kyoto Protocol, the 1997 accord that is the only legally binding international agreement in place now to curb emissions.
Europe, Australia, Canada and Japan want to forge Kyoto into one new treaty, while China, India and other G-77 nations support keeping Kyoto in place out of fear they do not know what is next.
"It's a very difficult issue," the administration official said. "It is one that there's a lot of energy around on both sides. And if these negotiations fail, it could well be the issue over which it fails."
At the White House, press secretary Robert Gibbs also discussed the possibilities for failure in Copenhagen.
"Coming back with an empty agreement would be worse than coming back empty-handed," he said.