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Overseas frustration grows over U.S. domestic impasse on climate policy

Top climate change leaders from Europe to Africa are wondering if it's time to give up on the United States.

Frustrated by the U.S. Senate's recent abandonment of climate legislation and baffled by Congress' seeming inability to cut emissions, several officials told ClimateWire that countries are uncertain about America's role in upcoming treaty negotiations.

"Why is it that for the last 20 years the United States is unable to have a bill on climate change? What's happening? What's going on? It's very complicated to understand," said Brice Lalonde, France's top negotiator.

"For a lot of us, we cannot wait for the United States. We have to go on. It's like Kyoto,; we just go on" Lalonde said, referring to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol treaty that the U.S. joined but never ratified, leaving European countries to largely carry the weight of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Added Pa Ousman Jarju, lead negotiator for the small West African nation of Gambia, "We cannot rely on the U.S., because everything the U.S. is supposed to do depends on domestic policy. So we're not going to get anything from the U.S. in terms of tangible commitment."

He charged that the international community is "no longer hopeful" that America, the world's biggest historic emitter of global warming pollution, will ever pass a bill to cut emissions. That, he said, leaves the global community with two options: "Either the rest of the world continues to do what they were doing before, or the whole multilateral system will collapse."

Yesterday a mid-year session aimed at crafting a new global treaty to either extend or replace the Kyoto Protocol opened in Bonn, Germany. United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Secretariat Christiana Figueres pressed representatives from the 190 countries present to "take the next central step in the battle against climate change."

Specifically, she called on countries to build on promises they made as part of the Copenhagen Accord in Denmark last year to both cut carbon and deliver billions of dollars for vulnerable nations. Cancun, Mexico -- the December site for the next U.N. mega-summit on climate change, "the job of governments is to turn the politically possible into the politically irreversible," she said.

President Obama promised in Copenhagen that America would cut emissions about 17 percent below 2005 levels in the coming decade and about 83 percent by mid-century. Asked how to move forward when other countries -- unable to see how the United States can keep its pledge in the absence of domestic legislation -- are unwilling to set their own promises in motion, Figueres downplayed the importance of a U.S. bill.

"Whether the United States meets the pledge that it put on the Copenhagen Accord via legislation or whether it meets it via regulation is an internal domestic affair of the United States and one that they need to solve," she said. "What is clear is that at an international level the United States needs to participate in a a meaningful way, and in a way that is commensurate with its responsibility."

'We've got it on the table.'

U.S. leaders, for their part, insist that substantive achievements can be accomplished this year when the UNFCCC meets in Cancun. In an interview with ClimateWire yesterday, U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern insisted America is not backing away from its commitments, saying for the United States "there's nothing else to put on the table. We've got it on the table" (see related story).

All told, it's an unsettling time in the world of international climate change politics.

Copenhagen produced a voluntary agreement in which the United States and every major global warming polluter -- both industrialized and developing -- pledged to either reduce emissions or reduce the rate of emissions growth. Before the ink was dry, though, countries like China and India were finding ways to disavow large parts of the accord.

For the past seven months, negotiators have been bogged down with questions of process, like whether the United Nations is the right body to address climate change and how to make sure all countries feel like they have a hand in the negotiations. Perhaps the most important question is this: What role will the Copenhagen Accord -- merely acknowledged by not adopted by the UNFCCC -- have in the future?

There was blame to go around for the contentious Copenhagen summit, but developing countries honed in on the fact that the United States had not committed domestically to cutting greenhouse gas emissions. With President Obama only 10 months in office at the time, though, many gave him a pass. Instead, they pinned hopes of U.S. action on 2010.

From across oceans, environmental activists and national leaders watched with rapt attention this year as the U.S Congress passed health care legislation and an overhaul of financial regulations -- but not a climate bill.

Now many are wondering if there's something more going on here.

Obama can 'minimize the hurt'

"On the one hand the U.S. is leading the scientific field of climate change, and on the other hand there is this incredible difficulty to have a bipartisan agreement on climate change. It probably is something very deep in the U.S.," Lalonde said. "It's very, very peculiar. It's probably the fact that the United States was built on cheap energy."

Former U.S. Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs Frank Loy acknowledged that other countries are starting to lose faith in U.S. promises to cut emissions and said, "Some are asking something even more fundamental: Is the U.S. governable?"

"Those questions will be asked, and there is no way to avoid that," he said. "We do have a hard time passing major pieces of legislation. The president is not a prime minister."

But Loy, who served as the U.S. lead negotiator during the Clinton administration, said Obama can do a few key things to "minimize the hurt" and give America some credibility in the international negotiations. Top on the list: meeting the financial promise of Copenhagen to raise $30 billion by 2012, America's share of which he estimated to be around $6 billion.

"If we meet that task, I think that will do a lot to make it clear that while the administration was unable to get legislation, it remains serious in efforts to meet its obligations that it voluntarily took on," Loy said.

The administration currently is categorizing the emission reductions it believes will be achieved through new regulation on tailpipe emissions under the U.S. EPA so that it can show the country is on a glidepath toward achieving its emission promises. The problem, several pointed out, is how to assure nations that long-term emission goals can be met -- something much harder to achieve with regulation alone.

Few chips to bargain with

"Given the limitations of relying on the EPA, how credible will that claim be?" asked Alden Meyer, director of policy and strategy for the Union of Concerned Scientists. "That's a hard area when they get into long-term binding reduction goals. They basically have to argue that over time the U.S. political system will come to its senses and recognize the urgency of dealing with climate change."

U.S. climate change activists, meanwhile, are glumly trying to put the best face on Congress' failure to act on the climate bill.

Elliot Diringer, vice president for international strategies at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, said the lack of a bill "shouldn't stand in the way of reaching the decisions we need in Cancun." Diringer said he hoped countries could agree on a set of "strictly operational decisions" on things like technology, finance and transparency that would put countries in a better position to fulfill and be held accountable for their Copenhagen promises.

But he and others agreed that not having a bill undercuts America's leverage this year to get things it still wants, like a more transparent and accountable reporting system from countries like China and a larger role for the World Bank in delivering finance.

"If I'm China, I'm looking at this and saying, "What is the U.S. bringing to the table? ... Why should I move as quickly as they want me to?" Meyer said.

Jarju was even more blunt, saying America has effectively lost its ability to push countries to adopt the Copenhagen pact.

"The U.S. will not have any moral authority to pin people or to sell the Copenhagen Accord as if it is the Holy Bible or Koran," he said.

Mark Helmke, a senior aid to Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), questioned whether a new global treaty will ever emerge, and said the cacophony of Copenhagen showed that the world might be better off fighting climate change outside the United Nations.

"Maybe the day of these grand, all-countries-involved treaties ... maybe we have to find a new approach," he said.