Pew Center: Bush team at PoznaÅ„ doing “a very good job, actually, of representing US interests”

[Dispatch #2 from the climate talks in Poland by CAP Senior Fellow Andrew Light, first printed in WonkRoom. The Pew quote has been corrected in the headline and text.]

Since Monday, one of the predominant topics of conversation among representatives of American non-governmental organizations at this year’s United Nations conference on climate change has been “what’s up with Pew?” In this case the “Pew” is the Pew Center on Climate Change, which is taking the public stance that a “full, final, ratifiable agreement just isn’t in the cards” to succeed the Kyoto Protocol at next year’s much anticipated UN meeting in Copenhagen, as Pew’s Elliot Diringer told the Washington Post.

[That’s a view I share. See “Obama can’t get a global climate treaty ratified.”]

The message coming from Pew was that the gathered parties here in Poland should not get their hopes up that the US would agree to language next year in Copenhagen since it is “too optimistic,” as Pew’s Eileen Claussen said, to believe we will have a final cap and trade bill through Congress by then. If true, then we will fail in a promissory note floated by John Kerry, Al Gore, and others at last year’s UN climate change meeting in Bali to wait one year for the US to rejoin the international community on fighting climate change. It was with much anticipation then that Pew held a press conference here Wednesday on its views on the future of the Kyoto process.

For half an hour in a crowded press briefing room Roy Manick and Elliot Diringer held firm on the Pew line. According to Roy, while the world should take heart in Obama’s commitment to taking on climate change, this good start won’t get the US to the point where it can embrace final enactment of a treaty by next year’s Copenhagen meeting. Whatever the US brings to Copenhagen will depend on progress in Congress and the predominant line so far on that score has been, “it’s complicated.”

By Copenhagen we should get, according to Diringer, “agreement on the architecture for a post-2012″³ treaty once Kyoto runs out. This could include a floor for targets for the next round of cuts for developed countries and some sense of the level of support which developing countries can expect from developed countries. Whether such a minimal outcome could keep China and India in an agreement and eventually lead them to adopt nationally appropriate emissions cuts is anyone’s guess.

However, Pew’s people were unexpectedly sunny about one matter. When asked whether the presence of the Bush administration’s negotiating team at this meeting — led by Paula Dobriansky and Harlan Watson — was complicating the US position in PoznaÅ„, Diringer replied that he thought Bush’s representatives were doing “a very good job, actually, of representing US interests and keeping options open for the next administration.”

[JR: Note: The original post had “protecting” rather than “representing” Here is the full context of the quote, which Pew emailed me (webcast is here): A UPI reporter (minute 13:47) asks how PoznaÅ„ is affected by the US being in a transition phase between the current and incoming administrations?

Elliot: I think the fact that we are not yet represented by the incoming administration does of course place some limits on what we can do in PoznaÅ„. I would not say that because we are represented by the US negotiators here, we’re limiting the outcomes here. I think the US negotiating team is doing a very good job, actually, of representing US interests and keeping open options for the incoming administration. Also, this is a fairly light agenda here in PoznaÅ„. There are a few issues to be decided, but really no major definitive issues. So, I think everyone recognizes the US is in this transition phase and accepts that. I don’t think it’s having a major bearing on the mood or momentum here.

At best, this is a very inartful way of saying that “not much was going to happen at PoznaÅ„ anyway so the Bush team isn’t really screwing things up.” But, of course, not much was going to happen anyway because of the Bush team! At worst, of course, it sounds like Diringer is an apologist for what Bush and his team have done on climate nationally and internationally over the years, when in fact what they have done is an unforgivable crime against humanity, which may well have “doomed the planet.” I know most of the Pew team and am quite certain that is not what they believe. I urge them to issue a clarifying statement.

The next paragraph has been revised by Light.]

Delegates here clearly remember this same team as the ones who almost brought last year’s UN meeting in Bali to a grinding halt. As Gore told delegates then, “The United States is principally responsible for obstructing progress in Bali.” There is nothing wrong in principle, I suppose, with expressing public confidence in the US negotiating team, and I certainly wouldn’t count this as an endorsement of Bush’s position on climate change. We’re all on the same team trying to move forward to some kind of solution to this problem advancing the best science and the best policy. Nonetheless, at a meeting where the point seems to be an exercise in cooperation, one wonders if approving of how this team is “representing US interests,” given our history at these meetings where US interests have consistently been represented as at odds with the rest of the world, is a good diplomatic tack to take.

UPDATE: Several members of the US Climate Action Network, an umbrella organization of NGOs focused on climate change, took aim at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change’s pessimistic message.

Observing that US leadership has moved from an “obstinate obstacle to a creative catalyst,” Union of Concerned Scientists president Kevin Knobloch declared today that “this is no time to be depressing expectations” about action on climate change. “We have a rare opportunity between now and Copenhagen and we cannot squander it.”

National Wildlife Federation president Larry Schweiger said he was “optimistic” that a new White House “can deliver on an agreement at Copenhagen in 2009.” “There is no excuse any more for the US not to act,” added Jennifer Haverkamp of Environmental Defense.

And, when asked about the growing worries at this meeting that Obama’s stated target of returning US CO2 emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 was off the mark from the goals set by the EU, Ned Helme, President of the Center for Clean Air Policy, and a veteran of these meetings going back to the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, replied that the important thing which would make progress possible at Copenhagen was that “the US target is clear.” “That’s all that really matters,” he said. “As long as our delegates have a clear signal [from the Obama administration] we’re fine.”

So too with concerns that some EU member states, particularly Italy and conference host Poland, were now demanding that EU emission targets were no longer appropriate in the face of the financial crisis. “The targets have not changed,” said Helme, “only the question of who will bear the financial burden of cuts and when.”

UPDATE: In a closing press conference today by Climate Action Network International, an umbrella of environmental organizations working on climate change, Angela Anderson of the Pew Environment Group offered a view diverging from the message earlier in the week offered by the Pew Center on Climate Change. Anderson argued that the good news coming out of this meeting is that we should not worry about the transition to the Obama administration raising a hurdle to progress on a new treaty. “We do have a time line now,” she said, “and that time line is ambitious.”

Anderson offered that the statements from Obama on the priority of climate change for his administration, which Al Gore took time today to read out in an afternoon plenary session, and the statements by John Kerry (D-Mass) delivered personally in Poznan over the last day and a half, offered a clear message that the transition will not stall developing a work plan to salvage an agreement at Copenhagen.

Anderson also praised developing countries for moving forward on an ambitious plan to fulfill the aspirations of the Bali action plan decided at last year’s UN climate change meeting.

Although both groups are funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, Pew Environment Group is separate from the Pew Center on Climate Change. The former is characterized as an advocacy group and the latter as a think tank-research center. Each has separate boards of directors and do not govern each other’s messages. When asked about the difference between the messages of the two institutions in an interview, Anderson said, “It speaks for itself.”

Update: In his address to the conference, Al Gore responds to the naysayers:

To those who are fearful that it is too difficult to conclude this process with a new treaty by the deadline that has been established for one year from now in Copenhagen, I say it can be done, it must be done, let’s finish this . . . . Because ultimately this really is not a political issue. It is of course a moral issue, and even a spiritual issue. . . . This one affects the survival of human civilization.

He concludes: “Yes, we can.”

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9 Responses to Pew Center: Bush team at PoznaÅ„ doing “a very good job, actually, of representing US interests”

  1. Wes Rolley says:

    I think that Joe is correct that Obama will not be able to get a treaty ratified by the next Congress. Between the denier rhetoric of anyone who listens to Inhofe and the “we can’t afford to do anything now” logic of Republican Senators who want to turn the current recession into a campaign issue by opposing every governmental intervention, there is little hope.

    At the same time, Gore’s optimism is misplaced. When credible scientists are beginning to say that even 450 ppm is not achievable, he still talks as if a 350 goal can be. At some point, that loses credibility and I think we have reached that point now.

    For all the discussion we do here, and at every other climate related NGO, blog, email list, the fact is that we have not convinced the average voter that we need to do anything now, even if they do believe that climate change is real. Always, apparent short range economic benefit trumps not so apparent long range economic damage when a voter pulls the lever. When the issue is whether or not someone will have a job tomorrow, it is very difficult to get them to think about whether Miami will flood by 2050.

  2. Bob Wallace says:

    One of the jobs of our elected officials, especially members of the Senate, is to take a long term look at where we’re headed. We expect these people to keep our military ready to fend off an attacker, our federal agencies looking at what problems new pharmaceuticals might introduce….

    Sometimes governments have to make decisions that might not match the present popular desires but that’s why we set up something other than a pure democracy.

    Next month we get a new Congress. Democrats will be only a seat or two below the magic number of 60, at which a few crackpots can kill things that they don’t like because it doesn’t fit with their belief in a 6,000 year old universe.

    Will those couple of Senators from the Northeast vote with the Southeast/Underpopulated Midlands to block progress and risk loosing their jobs?

    I sort of doubt it.

    BTW, the most recent Gallup poll says that 89% of Americans say that global climate change is real and 68% say that we need to do something about it right now….

  3. Steve Bloom says:

    “Democrats will be only a seat or two below the magic number of 60”

    Don’t forget that this will only be true if Dems first vote to agree that the 60 vote rule will be in force for the upcoming session. With so much at stake, it seems to me to be unconscionable to let this absurdly undemocratic “tradition” stand.

  4. alex says:

    I would be embarrassed to be an American. A nation with double the carbon footprint of the average European should be making the first and deepest cuts, not dragging their feet.

    I do not understand why you feel it is necessary to get the cap and trade bill through Congress before making a global committment. This makes no sense. Surely the global agreement comes first, followed by legislation at a national level to make it happen. That is what every other nation is doing.

    The US seems to be turning delaying into an art form.

    [JR: This is the way U.S. politics is. But in any case, trying to negotiate a global agreement with 189 countries is not a productive use of time, as I’ve explained.]

  5. Bob Wallace says:

    Steve – I knew little (and still know little) about the rules of the Senate.

    According to this article it would take a 67 Senators (a super majority) vote to change the 60 vote cloture rule (the manner in which filibusters are killed).

    If that’s the case then I don’t ever see this rule going away. When/if one party had the 67 votes needed to do away with the 60 vote cloture rule they would have no need to do so. And would most likely be looking forward to a time when they might be in the minority and might find it useful.

    I think we’re looking to the good people of Maine to lean hard on their senators.

    At least for two more years when several northern senate seats come due for reelection.

  6. paulm says:

    This demonstrates why we are not going to get a democratic solution to climate change…

    Manchester says no to congestion charging

    Voters in Manchester have overwhelmingly rejected plans for a congestion charge after a city-wide referendum in which more than a million people voted.

    The Greater Manchester scheme was rejected by 79% of voters, amid a turnout in the 10 boroughs of 53.2%.

  7. paulm says:

    Heres a reality check – were not going to reduce our CO2 by anything near what is required….

    Let’s get real on the environment
    After the failure in Poznan, it’s time to be honest: the world is not going to be cutting greenhouse gases anytime soon

    Not one of us – you, me, Obama or the greenest activist anywhere in the world – is willing to live without the comforts fossil fuels provide us – heat, light, instant hot food, convenient transportation, modern agriculture and airplane travel.
    Obama will not change this. Americans will not accept large increases in what we pay for gasoline and electricity. President-elect Obama says he is going to solve the financial crisis, the healthcare crisis, the infrastructure crisis, the energy crisis, the climate crisis and perhaps even the intolerable shortage of magic pixie dust.

    The man is quite the optimist. But let’s not be completely stupid.
    Nor is the sense of crisis really there. Those claiming we are near some kind of catastrophic tipping point simply have no science to back up their claims.

    Even the world’s climate organisers do not hesitate to fly thousands of miles to Poland and live high on the hog.

    Given this, what can we do? Be realistic, first of all. Let’s fund geo-engineering research to the hilt, exploring how we can someday modify our planet’s natural systems to produce a slight atmospheric cooling. It is our destiny.

  8. alex says:

    paulm, interesting article. I was with him all the way until this para:

    “Nor is the sense of crisis really there. Those claiming we are near some kind of catastrophic tipping point simply have no science to back up their claims.”

    It is true that the necessary sense of crisis is missing, at least in the general public. The science IS there but it is complex and viewed as perhaps no more reliable than a weather forecast by many.

  9. alex says:

    Contraction and convergence is the real killer. Rich developing countries will not agree to it as a principle and without this global agreement is impossible.