Debate begins anew -- do U.N. talks matter in Washington?

DOHA, Qatar -- The U.N. climate conference is an annual event that draws thousands of diplomats, technocrats and activists who spend a couple of weeks nudging and elbowing one another over their respective nations' positions on curbing heat-trapping greenhouse gases.

As delegates wrapped up the latest conference here Saturday, many were facing what has become an annual question: Will this meeting make a difference?

Consider the case of the United States, the world's largest historical greenhouse gas emitter. The American delegation hosted several briefings here to highlight steps their country is already taking to shrink its carbon footprint. Would those efforts -- ranging from higher vehicle fuel economy standards to an energy efficiency push among federal agencies -- be happening without the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)?

Does the international climate process matter in Washington?

"I actually think that domestic influences international and international influences domestic," Todd Stern, the top U.S. climate negotiator, told reporters late Saturday. "It runs both ways in the United States."


The United States must show progress on reducing its own emissions to have any credibility when it asks other countries to do the same, Stern said. But Americans, he added, are wary of taking on responsibilities unilaterally.

"It's a worldwide problem," he said. "If you didn't have action going on around the world -- if it didn't look like China as well as Europe and others were acting -- it would be much harder to get support for action at home."

Stern and his delegation maintain the United States will sign on to a new international legal agreement that would take effect after 2020 only if it covers other major carbon-emitting nations. That position has drawn fire from developing nations and many environmentalists, who argue the United States has a greater obligation to lead.

But Stern and others say assigning responsibilities only to historically wealthy countries and giving up-and-comers like India and China a pass would not only make for a less effective solution to a global problem but would make the agreement unacceptable to the U.S. public.

Greens, meanwhile, say the rest of the world won't act until the United States does.

Jennifer Morgan, director of climate and energy at the World Resources Institute, said the United States' own lack of ambition has had a dampening effect on the very countries its negotiators hope to prod into action.

By limiting its international commitments to what can easily be achieved at home, she said, the United States is "pulling down ambition" across the board and making it more likely that the world will fail to reach a broader agreement on carbon emissions by 2015 as provided for in last year's Durban Platform.

"Right now, I think they're very defensive," she said.

Although the UNFCCC is not the only venue where the issue is being discussed, she said, it's the one with the potential to yield a broad-based agreement.

"So if [the United States] wants to influence those major economies, this is the place that particularly China and India want to engage," she said.

Persuading the Senate

The international process has already led countries responsible for 80 percent of the world's carbon emissions to commit to specific reduction targets, noted Jake Schmidt, international climate change director for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

"While opponents of action by the U.S. will continue to claim that the U.S. shouldn't act if others aren't taking action, those claims just don't stand up," he said, citing actions and commitments by China, India, Mexico, Brazil and South Korea.

Morgan said the United States could give the UNFCCC a boost by taking a less defensive stance in negotiations, even if that means making commitments that prove challenging to fulfill in a closely divided Washington.

"Sometimes in international negotiations, you need to agree to something as the executive branch that is in the foreign policy interest of the country, and then go back and implement it," she said.

While climate change is a divisive issue now in Congress, it might be less so by 2017 or 2018 when the United States will have to show how it will respond to an agreement to take effect in 2020.

President Obama should think of international leadership on climate change in his second term as a legacy issue, Morgan said.

"If the U.S. were to change its stance here, it would make a massive difference," she added.

But Nigel Purvis, who served in the Clinton administration as a senior U.N. global warming negotiator, said in an email that Democratic administrations have learned from past experience that making pledges abroad does little to spur congressional action on an issue like climate change.

"It is not the case that because a president is pressured internationally and promises action in global negotiations that the Congress feels compelled to act," he said. The Clinton administration, after all, negotiated and agreed to the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 -- which created the first set of binding international targets for carbon dioxide -- only to see the Senate reject it.

The Senate also declined to take up a CO2 cap-and-trade bill despite Obama's pledge to the United Nations at the talks in Copenhagen, Denmark, that the United States would cut its emissions by 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 -- a target set in the version of the bill that cleared the House in 2009.

"The argument that we had already agreed internationally was not persuasive," Purvis said.

'Attention and pressure'

But momentum on the international level can raise the profile of an issue at home, Purvis said. For example, Obama and congressional Democrats were encouraged to make climate change a flagship issue in 2009 in part because the UNFCCC process was at a critical juncture, and hopes were high that Copenhagen might produce a new treaty.

"He wanted to do all he could to meet high expectations domestically and internationally on climate change," Purvis said of the then-new president.

The issue lost ground politically after Copenhagen ended with no agreement and Congress failed to produce a comprehensive climate law.

The Obama administration continues to move forward with carbon regulations, something U.S. negotiators frequently highlighted during the meeting.

But hitting the target depends on U.S. EPA implementing new carbon rules for current U.S. power plants and taking other actions that it passed on during Obama's first term. Environmentalists, meanwhile, argue that America should make a much more ambitious pledge to keep the rise in global temperatures below 2 degrees Celsius.

Purvis said the Obama administration would probably not have set even the 17 percent target if the U.N. process did not exist and if Copenhagen hadn't generated so much international buzz.

Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists said the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's report released in 1990 and the treaty that emerged from the 1992 Rio de Janeiro climate conference, which led to the UNFCCC, provided "some impetus" for voluntary domestic emissions reduction programs under the George H.W. Bush and Clinton administrations.

Purvis said international negotiators and advocates should do as much as they can to get high-level decisionmakers involved in the international climate discussion.

"That attention and pressure is far more important than technical progress in the negotiating halls," he said.