If there’s no U.S. climate bill in 2009, would U.N. climate talks collapse in Copenhagen?

I have argued that Obama won’t be able to ratify any global climate treaty that is likely to come out of Copenhagen next December. Since the only thing worse than no global climate treaty in 2009 is a treaty that the President can’t get ratified, Obama, I believe, should be lowering expectations rather than making promises he can’t keep.

Greenwire reports (subs. req’d) that Eileen Claussen, executive director of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change and a former senior Clinton administration climate official, said something quite similar (though for slightly different reasons):

“We do not want to repeat Kyoto, where you go and negotiate something and then you can not deliver it…. That’s the worst of possible worlds, because nothing happens.”

… Claussen’s Pew Center has been among the most vocal of the groups trying to lower expectations on the timing for a new international climate agreement given the state of play in Washington. Claussen said she does not think Obama and Congress can finish cap-and-trade legislation in 2009. And she wants the Copenhagen deadline pushed back to give the United States the time it needs to finish its climate law.

Claussen and her colleagues said European officials have told them privately that they are aware of the tight U.N. schedule. But they cannot say this publicly for fear it will disrupt momentum toward a final climate deal. While Claussen credits Obama for giving some important signals on his position, she would like to see him go a step further and tell international officials that the United States won’t be ready to negotiate and agree to a final climate pact by Copenhagen.

If expectations are not lowered before Copenhagen, Claussen said, she worries that the U.N. talks could collapse, generating a fresh round of antagonism toward the United States.

“That,” she warned, “really doesn’t benefit anybody.”

I have talked to a number of colleagues with congressional experience who are skeptical that something as complicated as a national cap & trade bill could be completed in 2009, especially given everything else on Obama’s plate.

I believe the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change process can’t survive in its current form. But even if you think it can, Obama should try to delay Copenhagen until after there is a U.S. climate bill. It would be crazy for him to commit to something in international talks in 2009 that he can’t get through his own Congress as a domestic bill in 2010.

And I would repeat that if a Copenhagen Protocol does not include a binding commitment by China to cap emissions by 2020 — with some restrictions on how fast emissions can grow between now and then — it has no chance whatsoever of getting 67 votes in the U.S. Senate at any time during Obama’s term(s) in office. I would go even further: Such a flawed global climate treaty in 2009 might actually undermine chances for a U.S. domestic bill in 2010.

E&E News has more opinions on this subject:

The Obama administration must undertake two unique and complicated rounds of negotiations — writing a new international climate treaty and passing domestic cap-and-trade legislation — that probably won’t move at the same pace. It also must confront high expectations after eight years of the Bush administration’s pitched diplomatic battles on climate change strategies.

“The U.S. is key to unlocking this situation — that everybody is waiting for everybody,” said Thomas Becker, Denmark’s chief climate negotiator and the host for the December 2009 global warming summit in Copenhagen.

Becker and other Europeans recognize that Obama will not be at the negotiation table during the latest round of U.N. climate talks, which opened yesterday in Poznan, Poland, and continue through Dec. 12. Still, they are anxious to see what the United States will do with its climate policies after Obama’s inauguration on Jan. 20.

After all, it is Europe that is struggling more than anyone else to implement the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. And the continent has also gone out on a limb in making its own post-Kyoto commitments to reduce its emissions of greenhouse gases 20 percent by 2020 — with pledges to go even further if countries like the United States sign up for similar reductions, too.

“This is a question of political will,” Becker said during a conference last month in Washington, citing the recent federal bailout of beleaguered U.S. financial firms. “You can overnight find $700 billion to pump into the financial sector. Of course it’s possible.”

So what does the rest of the world expect of the United States and Obama? And how fast does it want action?

Clearly, Europe and its allies in the environmental community want to see the enactment of a mandatory cap on U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, a dramatic turn that they see as the key to bringing developing nations like China and India into a global pact for pollution reductions. And they would like to see a new U.S. emissions law signed by the Copenhagen meeting next year.

“If we miss this opportunity, then I think all the momentum we’ve generated would be lost, and essentially we’d be starting from scratch,” Rajendra Pachauri, an Indian economist and the Nobel Prize-winning chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said in October at the Society of Environmental Journalists’ conference in Roanoke, Va. “And we know what that means. It means several years of delay.”

But most observers of the U.S. policy debate say Obama will need all of 2009 and perhaps part of 2010 to get cap-and-trade legislation signed into law.

It will take time just to get Obama’s appointees confirmed by the Senate and settled into their new jobs. And while Democrats have greater majorities on both sides of Capitol Hill after November’s elections, moving climate legislation still remains more a regional challenge than a partisan one.

Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill say they recognize this. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) told reporters last week that Copenhagen can be successful even if the United States does not have cap-and-trade legislation enacted.

Obama “doesn’t have to sign it, but we have to be on a track” by the 2009 U.N. meeting, said Kerry, who will be the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee in 2009, putting him in prime position to lead Senate consideration of any post-Kyoto treaty. “And there has to certainly be an administration position with respect to it. And there will be.”

‘A herculean effort’

Several prominent players in the international climate debate agree with Kerry that the United States need not have a climate law in place by next December.

“I don’t see how [Obama would] be able to do that,” Yvo de Boer, head of the U.N. climate office, said of U.S. cap-and-trade legislation being signed into law before Copenhagen. “I’m very impressed with what he’s done so far, but that’d be a herculean effort.”

Added Jill Duggan, head of the United Kingdom’s emissions trading program: “There’ll always be some nervousness until it’s passed into law. But none of us can get legislation in advance of [Copenhagen]. It’s setting the framework for what legislation we have to take forward.”

Duggan urged the United States to take its time to get its legislation right.

“It’s quite tricky,” Duggan said. “I see so many people here say it’d be so good to say we have something. But actually you want something that works, don’t you? You want something that is going to make a difference? Otherwise, you have all of that eight years, all of that effort, for nothing.”

Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists is among many environmentalists pushing for action in Congress. Yet he, too, underscored the difficulties in getting cap-and-trade legislation finished so quickly in Obama’s first year in office.

“Some think Obama can wave a magic wand and we have a national cap-and-trade bill in six weeks,” Meyer said. “But most serious observers see and know it’s going to take some time and some work.”

Meyer said the right momentum and economic situation could lead to action. “It’s not inconceivable to do it before Copenhagen with the right package.” But he insisted that the key is “serious momentum … that Congress is behind the administration to do both domestic implementation and treaty ratification.”

A number of prominent observers say they are hoping to just get House- or Senate-passed legislation by the Copenhagen meeting.

“I understand the Danes’ eagerness to get a deal, to name it the Copenhagen Protocol,” said Michael Oppenheimer, a Princeton University professor who served as a lead co-author of the 2007 IPCC report. “The Japanese had a similar situation with Kyoto. The importance of deadlines is understandable, too. But in this case, the only thing that would give prudence to a deal is if the U.S. has passed significant legislation.”

Oppenheimer said it is most important for U.S. lawmakers to have public support at home for their policy. That, in turn, will lead to a successful treaty.

“In the ideal world, Obama would press this issue immediately after inauguration, and Congress and the public would buy in immediately and settle all the details and pass legislation quickly enough so that the international negotiations could move forward and complete by Copenhagen,” Oppenheimer said. “In the real world, I don’t think this is in the cards.”

Kyoto lessons

To this day, the United States is the only major industrialized nation that has not ratified the Kyoto Protocol. And many contend that the lessons learned from that debacle are critical for Obama and for the rest of the world as it tries to close a new climate deal.

“We do not want to repeat Kyoto, where you go and negotiate something and then you can not deliver it,” said Eileen Claussen, executive director of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change and a former senior Clinton administration climate official. “That’s the worst of possible worlds, because nothing happens.”

In 1997, the Senate voted 95-0 on a resolution that blocked President Bill Clinton from getting ratification of Kyoto if it did not include binding commitments from developing economies. While Vice President Al Gore signed the Kyoto document, the administration never sent it to the Senate.

At the time, the Republican-led Congress had no interest in enacting mandatory limits on domestic greenhouse gases. And in later years, it made it clear that the Clinton administration should not spend a single dime on anything Kyoto-related. U.S. diplomacy on climate change largely stayed frozen for much of the administration of President George W. Bush.

Headed toward Copenhagen, U.S. lawmakers still have similar domestic concerns when they consider taking big steps on binding emission cuts. Labor groups, major manufacturers and electric utility companies have gone so far as to demand tariffs on imports from countries that do not take sufficient steps with their own global warming policies.

The Bush administration says such tariffs would prompt a trade war. Indeed, several developing countries have promised to file appeals with the World Trade Organization if such language makes it into U.S. law. Still, the idea may have some merit.

At last December’s U.N. meeting in Bali, Indonesia, developing countries went on record for the first time acknowledging the need to establish their own domestic policies to curb emissions. Key details still must be hashed out before Copenhagen on how to measure, report and verify these programs so the countries get credit in a new international climate agreement. Negotiations also are needed over what type of financial payments developing countries can expect from industrialized nations to assist with their efforts on energy technologies, adaptation and halting deforestation.

The Bali agreement broke new ground in diplomatic climate circles. Previously, a 13-year-old pact — known in U.N. parlance as the “Berlin Mandate” — had granted China, India and other developing countries the right to engage in international climate negotiations without taking significant mandatory steps of their own toward reducing emissions. This is why the U.S. Senate would not consider Kyoto.

The developing countries approved the Bali statement not long after Bush administration officials mentioned the threat of import trade sanctions included in a leading Senate cap-and-trade bill written by Connecticut independent Sen. Joe Lieberman and Virginia Republican Sen. John Warner (E&E Daily, Dec. 18, 2007).

‘Delicate balance’

A big question is whether U.N. negotiations will move faster than the debate on Capitol Hill. Already, some key dates have been set for international talks next year, but Obama and Democratic leaders have not spoken publicly about the schedule for their climate bill.

While some observers see a need for close coordination between Capitol Hill and Obama’s diplomatic team, they also say there is no need for a plan to fuse the two tracks.

The Road to Copenhagen
U.N. climate talks Today-Dec. 12 Poznan, Poland
Major economies meeting preparation Late February-early March 2009 TBA
U.N. talks March 29-April 8 Bonn, Germany
U.S.-E.U. summit Typically around June TBA
U.N. talks June 1-12 Bonn, Germany
G-8 summit July 8-10 Sardinian island of La Maddalena, Italy
U.N. talks Dec. 1-12 Copenhagen, Denmark
Sources: U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, G-8, White House Council on Environmental Quality.

“I don’t think one can make an argument that one should go before the other,” said Robert Stavins, an economist at Harvard University.

There are practical considerations on Capitol Hill.

It would be easier for Senate Democratic leaders to get 60 votes to overcome a filibuster on cap-and-trade legislation before trying to win 67 votes for treaty ratification. That said, the international agreement may win or lose depending on how it is written. “It’s a very delicate balance,” Oppenheimer said.

Democratic leaders likely will get pressure from among their own ranks to include trade-penalty language in a domestic cap-and-trade bill. And if Obama’s campaign promises can be taken at face value, he too approves of using such language, should developing countries not take steps similar to those of the United States on global warming (ClimateWire, May 12).

Another powerful tool for U.S. negotiators comes from funding available in a cap-and-trade bill. Assuming Democrats write legislation that auctions allowances to industry, they could generate billions of dollars in new revenue that could be shared with developing countries as incentives for making their own commitments. To date, only Norway has come close to pledging some of the funding requested by the developing world to cope with adaptation, deforestation and energy technology challenges.

A U.S. cap-and-trade law could add significant sums to that pot. If the United States has its law in place before a final international agreement is reached, developing countries would presumably know exactly how much to expect. Some see this as hindering the U.S. negotiation stance, should it want to press for even tougher emission reductions from the developing world. So it may be better to wait on a final U.S. law until after the international deal is struck.

Of course, none of this will be easy in tight economic times. “There’s going to be a limit to how much deficit spending we’re going to be able to spend on these issues,” Kevin Fay, a Washington lobbyist, warned during a recent panel discussion hosted by the Environmental Law Institute.

And there are also some basic philosophical hurdles to overcome among conservatives on Capitol Hill who do not support using environmental programs as a wealth transfer for the developing world. “In some ways, this is a rerun of the same kinds of discussions that happen every time there’s negotiations on international issues,” explained Jeff Holmstead, an industry attorney and former U.S. EPA air pollution chief under President George W. Bush.

Additionally, it is seldom the case that a U.S. implementation law is in place in time for the conclusion of treaty negotiations. In 1987, Reagan administration officials negotiated the Montreal Protocol on “substances that deplete the ozone layer.” It wasn’t until three years later that President George H.W. Bush signed the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments, which included requirements to phase out the ozone-depleting substances.

The same thing happened in Kyoto, de Boer said.

“I can’t think of a single country that signed up in Kyoto that also had its implementation plan done,” de Boer said. “All the industrialized countries that signed up to targets in Kyoto then went and developed their national policy package and submitted the package for approval in conjunction with a ratification proposal. I don’t see why we should have a much more difficult standard for the United States.”

Anyone who doesn’t see why things are different for the United States needs to review what happened this summer in the debate over the Boxer-Lieberman-Warner bill (see “Is 450 ppm politically possible? Part 6: What the Boxer-Lieberman-Warner bill debate tells us“).

17 Responses to If there’s no U.S. climate bill in 2009, would U.N. climate talks collapse in Copenhagen?

  1. hapa says:

    they managed a whole article without mentioning that there’s a global recession of unknown length and chinese and indian objections to emissions limits were based on needing a high growth rate to prevent collapse — now an almost unavoidable outcome, with US and EU consumption in the toilet for many many months to come and the stabilized rate after that hampered by instead of powered by the credit bubble.

    emissions come from industry, don’t they still?

  2. alex says:

    As a non-US citizen I am frankly disgusted by this piece. Things are NOT different for the US – it is very hard for any democratically elected government to pass climate legislation, but it is the reason we have governments – to enact social decisions that individuals can’t make for themselves.

    As for pointing the finger at Europe and China – the US has double the per-capita carbon footprint of Europe and 6x that of China. Get your act together and show some global responsibility.

    It is depressing that you are already building a case for Obama to slither out from his electoral committments before he has even taken up the post. The UK has achieved its Kyoto committments and has just published a play to reduce CO2 by 80% by 2050 (soon to be incorporated in our climate bill). Believe me, the population at large is as antagonistic / apathetic towards action as the US population but it is being pushed through anyway.

    [JR: Wow! You are definitely not a regular reader of this blog. The only “case” I am building is for Obama to keep his promise and pass a serious climate bill as soon as possible. I will soon blog on what I think he should do internationally.]

  3. Tim R says:

    I note all of the talk about trade sanctions that the US wants to impose on developing countries with dirty energy systems to force them to the treaty table. Quite a blind spot for Americans that they don’t realize that the EU and the signatories of a Copenhagen Protocol could do the same to the US. Take a look at the WTO Appellate Body rulings on environmental issues, for example, US–Turtle Shrimp or Brazil–Tyres. The only issue is to place tariffs in a non-discriminatory way. If the US doesn’t want to come to the international table, its exports are bound to be taxed by those doing the heavy lifting. That ought to turn much of the US manufacturing sector into climate believers overnight.

  4. jorleh says:

    Talks are big, it costs nothing to speak big. But have a look 2020, CO2 emissions have gone up 20%. Just as Kyoto talks in Europe.

    Politics is to speak, not to act.

  5. glenncz says:

    My own opinion is that this is a huge burden to our society for very little benefit.

  6. Judy Cross says:

    The official Name of the Kyoto Accord is: KYOTO PROTOCOL TO THE UNITED NATIONS FRAMEWORK CONVENTION ON CLIMATE CHANGE. The objective of the Accord is to reduce the impact of observed increases in global temperatures using 1990 as the reference year for a target.

    If we take the average global temperature in 1990 as a “zero reference”, the average temperature for 2002 can be seen to be about 0.35øC, and the average temperature for the last 12 months is back down to about 0.05øC. The best fit linear trend since 2002 is about 0.025øC/year of cooling, and at this rate we will have met the Kyoto target of 1990 temperature in just two years without having done anything!

    (Temperature graph is posted on the front page of the Friends of Science website )

    If the Kyoto target of 1990 global temperature will be met in just two years in spite of the continued increase in CO2 emissions, doesn’t it seem a bit odd that the world leaders are willing to sacrifice the global economy to reduce CO2 emissions as though CO2 emissions reductions, and not global temperature stabilization, was the objective of the Kyoto Protocol?

    [JR: You almost had me going there. Friends of science! Good one! Was taken? How about]

  7. jae says:

    All the talks SHOULD collapse, since there is no demonstrable problem with CO2 emissions. Nada. No warming for over 10 years, no “hot spots” in the troposphere, as predicted by the Global Circulation Models. Shift to negative in the PDO, causing cooling oceans. The fears are all based on hype and pseudo-science. Looking at the low solar activity for the last 2 years, we should fear Global Cooling, not Global Warming.

  8. Crustacean says:


    “the [UK] population at large is as antagonistic / apathetic towards action as the US population but it is being pushed through anyway.”

    Well… Thanks ever so much for shedding this light on the desperate rush to enact authoritarian economic schemes before too many people catch on to the fact that the planet has been cooling for a decade, that there’s NO correlation with CO2 anyway, and that none of this really has much to do with climate, except as a brilliantly contrived–and now rapidly fading–excuse.

  9. Professor_D says:

    Right on, Ms. Cross!!!

  10. alex says:


    I am a regular reader of this blog but that doesn’t mean I agree with you on the politics. I feel there is a desperate paucity of ambition at every level, but particularly within the political structure of the US. If your federal system is getting in the way of action then do it at the state level – this is what we are effectively doing in Europe; the UK has ambitious CO2 reduction goals, is showing every sign of achieving them and is not trying to hide behind Brussels as an excuse for failing.


    If you are from the “stick your head out of the window” school of climate science then I would agree that recent weather has been cool. However, the long term trends unmistakenly support AGW and the evidence of polar ice retreat, melting glaciers and permafrost is beyond doubt. Global CO2 trends are worsening year on year and, looked at objectively, the picture is bleak. Anyone who dismisses or trivialises the issue is being very short sighted.

  11. David B. Benson says:

    glenncz — I fear you have been fooled.

    jae — You certainly have.

  12. Steve Bloom says:

    “” *snork* Good one (for real). Actually for that crowd it should be more like

  13. JAY says:

    The earth isn’t warming. Nobody will support these silly proposals once the costs are exposed.

  14. Vangel says:

    What a waste of time, energy and money. What we have is natural variation in temperature trends but the politicians believe that they should be able to profit by pretending that man is responsible. As they try to grab more power all of the corrupt individuals come bearing support hoping to cash in on the windfall that the taxpayer will be asked to provide to solve a non-existent problem. There is a recession out there and it is time for serious people to step up and tell the politicians that their corruption will no longer be tolerated by the voters.

  15. alex says:


    “…but the politicians believe that they should be able to profit by pretending that man is responsible.”

    Correction. The scientists are telling us that man is reponsible. The politicians are doing their best to ignore it.

  16. Axil says:

    A carbon tax that has been proposed by Dr. James E. Hansen is best for this country and more generally the world. Cap and trade has some unintended consequences that could be very nasty.

    Cap and trade is applied to a selected set of big users of carbon in this country. These large coal consumers will stop using coal and the coal price will naturally fall. The Chinese will increase their buy of this cheap US coal in massive amounts which will increase world CO2 emissions and make China that much more competitive in the world market with the associated lost of US jobs and accelerated imports of cheaper Chinese goods that this cheap energy will enable.

    A carbon tax as advocated by Dr Hanson that is uniformly applied without exception at the point of production will produce tax revenues from coal exports to China that the Average US tax payer will receive as an energy rebate. This will keep a balance in the China/US trade and labor equation as well as motivate China to migrate electric production to nuclear electric power generation.

  17. msn nickleri says:


    “…but the politicians believe that they should be able to profit by pretending that man is responsible.”

    Correction. The scientists are telling us that man is reponsible. The politicians are doing their best to ignore it.