Talks heading into overtime

COPENHAGEN -- Confusion reigns at the global climate talks.

President Obama remains huddled with other world leaders in the second floor of the Bella Center where talks are being held. On the main floor, it is a scene of high drama and low expectations, with palpable confusion and frustration among negotiators.

In the hours since Obama told the Copenhagen summit, "I came here not to talk but to act," he has had talks with about a dozen foreign leaders, including a bilateral discussion with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao that aides said "made progress." Lunchtime conversations involved Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Israeli President Shimon Peres and the leaders of Turkey, Greece, Ghana and the Czech Republic.

Versions of draft negotiating texts are flying around the Bella Center. With only minimal information trickling out of the leaders' meetings, rumors are ruling the conference. Aid groups wondered if China and India had walked out. The London Guardian passed on speculation that U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had asked leaders to stay until tomorrow to secure a deal, but U.N. spokeswoman Marie Okabe said it is untrue.

The White House did not put a departure time on Obama's itinerary, and many other world leaders have yet to say when they plan to leave Denmark.

Most negotiators said they expect to work through the night, producing a final document by midday Saturday. "I call it consensus by exhaustion," predicted Anton Hilber, a member of the Swiss negotiating team.

Albi Modise, a spokesman for the South African delegation, said a deal has to come tonight. "We can't be here until Saturday night. Our visas expire tomorrow," he said.

One of the latest declaration drafts to emerge from the high-level talks is the "Copenhagen Accord." It eliminates the 2010 deadline for a legal agreement and also changes language that once said global temperatures "ought not to exceed 2 degrees" above preindustrial temperatures -- the level at which scientists predict catastrophic consequences -- to "should be below 2 degrees." Analysts said the new language is softer and less binding.

"Absolutely vacuous," one source close to the new text called it. World leaders, the source said, "are up there trying to work out whether they can sell a crap deal as a success or accept a failure."


Yet the changes are coming fast and furiously, and the reality is that only a select few know what is actually being decided.

Top Capitol Hill Democratic aides, as well as many nongovernment participants, said they were out of the loop in terms of details.

"I wish I knew," said Steve Eule of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, who is also a former Energy Department official from the George W. Bush administration.

House Republicans, meanwhile, made it their mission to tell anyone who would listen that the United States won't pass a climate bill, and that anything Obama signs here has to meet with their approval. "It's not something that's going to be implementable in the U.S. Congress," said Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas).

Many who want a new global treaty are trying to remain optimistic.

Dirk Forrister, managing director of Natsource, acknowledged, "It's looking pretty rough." But he added that a deal can be made, "because they're still up there talking."

But the evidence is hard to ignore. The United Nations postponed a "family photo" of the record number of world leaders that was to be taken during lunch, just minutes after Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez denounced Obama's policies during the plenary.

A series of press conferences planned for today were also canceled as Chavez held court for more than an hour. Told that the United Nations wanted him to wrap up, Chavez said "I'm answering questions. Tell them to bring the police."

Some real work is still being done. Negotiators are working on side issues like the clean development mechanism. But the big question at hand is what to do with the next commitment period of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, an issue that is not relevant to the United States but still holds significant weight on Copenhagen's outcome.

Tensions are high for many of the environmental ministers and their senior staff, many of whom are going on little or no sleep.

"This is Kyoto style," said Ned Helme, president of the Center for Clean Air Policy. "It's down to the wire."

Click here for one of the "political agreement" drafts circulating out of Copenhagen.

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