Don't expect the United States to announce any new emissions targets at next week's U.N. global warming summit. And definitely don't expect promises of money for poor countries. But observers say that when President Obama takes the stage in New York, he will have a unique chance to recast America's role in fighting climate change to the international community.
The Sept. 23 gathering, hosted by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, is expected to be the largest gathering ever of heads of state on climate change. U.N. officials announced yesterday that upward of 125 leaders are expected to attend -- two dozen more than showed up to the last mega-meeting on climate change in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 2009.
The leaders of China and India will not be among the summit attendees. But sources say Obama has no plans to drop his attendance. That has sparked criticisms from Republicans and other detractors of the climate movement, who say the United States will be "out on a limb" without other major emitters. Supporters, though, call the summit a key U.S. opportunity.
"This is probably the first time, maybe ever, that the U.S. can actually provide a compelling backup for a climate event," said Lou Leonard, who leads the World Wildlife Fund's climate change program. He noted that in addition to the administration moving forward on proposed rules to cut carbon from the nation's power plants, the summit will take place just before the two-year anniversary of Superstorm Sandy in the city that suffered some of its worst destruction.
"I think it's definitely a leadership moment. The question is whether it will be one the president will embrace and step into," Leonard said.
The summit comes at a key moment in the international climate negotiations, expected to culminate in Paris at the end of 2015 in a new global agreement. Under it, all major climate polluters are expected to curb carbon after 2020.
An opportunity to start climate solutions
And while the New York gathering is not part of the formal negotiations -- a point U.N. officials are quick to make -- it was initially seen as the place where countries might announce their post-2020 pledges. That idea tanked fast after the United States at the most recent negotiating session in Warsaw, Poland, pushed to make the formal deadline the first quarter of 2015 -- a date that, unlike the summit, would arrive well after the midterm elections.
At the same time, though, the United States has been pushing for other major emitters to use the summit as a place to "commit to commit": that is, to say publicly on the world stage that their governments will actually make a firm carbon-cutting pledge next year.
Jennifer Morgan, director of the Climate and Energy Program at the World Resources Institute think tank in Washington, D.C., said that effort is becoming "a very important part of the summit" that countries are taking seriously.
"It is important, certainly, because one of the big lessons of Copenhagen is if countries table their offers early, it provides an opportunity for other countries and the public to look at those efforts" and weigh them for ambition and equity, Morgan said.
Absent specifics, though, activists said Obama can still make an impact by explaining how the United States is planning to achieve its current goal of cutting emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by the end of this decade and what the world can expect from America in the future.
"One thing I think would be very helpful is helping the world understand the significance of regulation of greenhouse gases on power plants and helping people around the world understand what the significance of that is in terms of addressing a core climate change challenge in the United States," said Peter Ogden, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a former White House National Security staff director for climate change.
"I do think that people don't fully appreciate the enormity of that move," he said.
Agreed Paul Bledsoe, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund and former Clinton White House climate aide, "I think he has to remind world leaders about how far the U.S. has come.
"There's a hangover of skepticism from the [George W.] Bush years that the U.S. is not serious domestically, and the president needs to remind global leaders of the entire series of policies that the administration and the states have enacted," he said.
Efforts to reduce methane and super-warming gases
The United States will come with some announcements. The administration is expected to pledge money to a new World Bank pilot auction facility to reduce methane emissions, and a new series of commitments by major businesses like Coca-Cola Co. and PepsiCo Inc. to phase out a super-warming greenhouse gas coolant used in refrigerators and air conditioners will get heavy traction. But with Chinese President Xi Jinping not attending the summit, hopes have largely been dashed for a big U.S.-China announcement.
Leaders from U.N. climate chief Christiana Figueres on down have urged observers to "not read too much into" the decision of Xi or Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi not to attend and note that both countries are sending high-level representatives. But Bracewell & Giuliani LLP energy specialist Frank Maisano said it's hardly insignificant.
"I always think it's a really big deal when China and India decide not to come. They have to be at the table for any negotiations that are ever going to be meaningful on international climate agreements," he said. "Of course, the activists and the proponents of significant action here are saying, 'Don't worry about that. It's not a problem that China and India aren't here.' But they can't really say that with a straight face. It does matter."
Maisano said he doesn't have strong hopes for Obama's speech. "I don't think he'll say what I want to hear," he said. "He needs to say that we need to have an incremental, cooperative approach that respects the political realities but will over time lead to success in terms of new technologies, in terms of emissions reductions and in terms of global partnerships. But that would make too much sense."
Modi will be in town the following week, visiting the White House Sept. 29-30, and climate change is expected to be on the agenda. Key bilateral climate discussions are also continuing with China, and some have indicated that there will be a joint announcement in the coming months. Meanwhile, environmentalists said, Obama could use the summit moment to shine.
"It's Obama's stage," Leonard said. "It's his backyard. He's been doing a lot at home ... let's see if he can really win the narrative on this."