Congress Skips Durban Climate Talks: Is That a Good Thing?

At least we know Senator Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) — one of the fiercest climate deniers in Congress — won’t be making a side show out of the Durban climate talks. He won’t be attending this year.

But neither will anyone else in Congress.

Greenwire reports today that only one Congressional staffer and zero members — yes zero — have plans to attend the COP 17 climate conference in South Africa next week. With the press prematurely declaring the talks all but dead, members of Congress seem to have latched onto that storyline:

This year’s talks did not even appear to be on members’ radar as they prepared to leave for Thanksgiving recess last week.

“It’s awful to say, but I haven’t focused on them at all because first of all we’ve hit a wall here for now on climate change,” said Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), adding that Congress’ focus is now on debt and economic issues.

International climate issues are “basically happening through the administration now,” he said, “although I think Congress has to stay involved.”

Waxman, who sponsored a cap-and-trade bill that cleared the House in 2009, said he “hoped for the best” from Durban.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I haven’t thought about it.”

“It hasn’t been brought to my attention,” said Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.).

Asked whether she planned to go, Boxer said she could not. “I’m too busy here,” she said.

The Durban conference starts on Monday. Many journalists and pundits have already written off the conference, believing that nothing will happen. If past experience is any indication, the chances of a comprehensive deal of carbon emissions are next to zero. But there has been a lot of progress in putting together packages for helping fund mitigation and adaptation projects in developing countries — an important piece that will be central to the negotiations.

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Andrew Light, coordinator of international climate policy at the Center for American Progress, says that the absence of Congress may be a good thing, as it will make it less likely to bring politics into play:

Two things make it appropriate that we’ll see a smaller congressional delegation at Durban than in previous years at the UN climate summit. First, gridlock in Washington has made it virtually impossible for congress to take a meaningful role in shaping national climate policy so there are fewer messages for staffers to bring to the negotiations by way of representing U.S. efforts and fewer parts of the process that will be of concern to their members.

Second, and more important from the perspective of the negotiations, there are good reasons to believe that success in Durban will mean a continuation of the step-wise approach started in Cancun last year with slow but steady progress on the building blocks of a new international climate regime. Like Cancun I hope to see a quieter productive meeting rather than a loud and contentious one. This is the best hope for getting a future climate agreement rather than putting all our bets down on a big win in one meeting as we did in Copenhagen in 2009. This meeting should be a venue for diplomats, and increasingly finance and treasury ministers. It will likely make more progress if it’s not used as soap box for anyone’s political agenda

Members did said they would consider sending staffers if the negotiations started taking off. But it’s likely that the politicking won’t be very intense. We hope.

Spoiler alert: Greenwire reports that Inhofe may actually go if there is progress during the talks.