Dispatch From Poznan: The American Problem

Our guest blogger is Andrew Light, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, who is now attending the United Nations climate change talks in Poznan, Poland. This is the first of several on-the-scene dispatches.


It goes by various names here: “The chicken and egg problem.” “The ping pong problem.” Mostly though it’s just “The American problem.” All are various terms for the same issue which so far has cast a pall (matching the weather) over the early part of the second, and most important week of the UN climate change talks currently underway in Poland.

What is the problem? The pervading fear here that the Obama administration will not embrace the next iteration of the Kyoto Protocol climate change treaty, set to be decided a year from now at the next UN climate meeting in Copenhagen, because they will not have a national cap and trade agreement through Congress by that time. According to organizations like the Pew Center on Global Climate Change no national cap and trade equals no confidence that new targets for limiting emissions stipulated by a Copenhagen agreement could be met equals no agreement to finalize a new treaty at Copenhagen where an extension of Kyoto must be finished. According to Pew’s Elliot Diringer, “A full, final, ratifiable agreement just isn’t in the cards.”

This is particularly hard news for the international community here to swallow after last year’s UN meeting in Bali where a “roadmap” document for the anticipated Copenhagen treaty was negotiated over much turmoil. The Bush administration almost hijacked that meeting by initially refusing to sign the roadmap because it included a broad and modest range of stipulated targets for CO2 reductions for the successor treaty. Bali would have ended in utter failure if not for Al Gore and a few others who saved the conference by convincing outraged delegates to wait one year for a new administration ready to join the world community. As a result, after much drama, Europeans and others shelved their plan for targeted cuts in the Bali roadmap and the US agreed to a vastly watered down document in the final minutes of the conference. Bush and company won that round but the rest of the world walked out confident that this year would be different regardless of who won the US presidential election.

And then came Obama. Expectations here couldn’t have been higher that the results of the US election were a complete game changer for the next phase of the Kyoto process. Were they just wrong?

In this atmosphere of doubt and disappointment a session on Monday evening advertised in the official daily program as including Senators John Kerry (D-MA) and Dick Lugar (R-IN) was understandably packed to the gills and dozens couldn’t get in the door. With no official representatives here from the Obama transition team, and with Bush’s negotiators making sometimes bizarre pronouncements about Obama’s intentions or lack thereof, a message of clarity and hope from senior Obama advisors was a must see for this international audience. Unfortunately what was delivered provided little by way of a reiteration of a message of hope or an assurance that waiting a year on the US to get its act together was a good idea. In fact, the take home from the session suggested an opposite conclusion.

For starters, Kerry, Lugar, and Olympia Snowe (R-ME) (also on the program) weren’t there. This was due to an unfortunate miscommunication between the conference secretariat and the event’s sponsors: The International Emissions Trading Association (IETA), The Pew Charitable Trusts (not to be confused with the Pew Center on Global Climate Change), and Environmental Defense. Worse though was the message of the actual speakers which included representatives from each Senator’s office and leading staffers from the congressional committees who will be chiefly responsible for shepherding a national cap and trade or a ratification of the Copenhagen treaty. The upshot: Recent experience with the Wall Street bailout notwithstanding, things move at a glacial pace in the US Congress –- a metaphor your grandchildren may well not comprehend –- so don’t hold your breath on, well, anything.

Even after Annie Petsonk of Environmental Defense opened the session with a moving plea for how the US could still make progress in Copenhagen and move forward, especially with this president in the White House, the gathered congressional staffers were having none of it. Each presentation offered more and more minutiae of the difficulties of how a bill becomes a law, culminating in Sen. Lugar’s aide Mark Helmke lecturing the audience on how the American Senate gives undue power to small states, thus offering the chance for tiny parts of the electorate dependent on the coal mining industry to thwart the millions of Californians yearning for an even closer relationship to the sun.

As the air left the room, along with a good number of those gathered, a representative from one European state standing next to me began audibly muttering to himself. After it was over I pulled him aside and asked his impression. “I don’t understand you people,” he said, glaring at me. “It’s like you think you’re the only ones in the world with a complicated legislative system! Have you any idea what it’s like to try to get something through the EU?”

I had no response except to sheepishly offer that these folks didn’t speak for the administration and that Obama has been consistently vocal on an ambitious approach to climate change as soon as possible. Surely, while no one could doubt that there will be hurdles getting the US back in this process in such a short amount of time, it is ridiculously premature to declare the death of an agreement in Copenhagen as a foregone conclusion. Whatever one thinks about these difficulties the overwhelming impression of the audience leaving this session was clear: We weren’t the change they’ve been waiting for.

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