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 Poznań, Poland. This is the second of several on-the-scene dispatches.
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.
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” 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 Poznań, Diringer replied that he thought Bush’s representatives were doing “a good job of representing US interests and keeping options open for the next administration.”
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. Regardless, at a meeting where the point seems to be an exercise in cooperation, one wonders if praising “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 Via Climate Progress, the full quotation by Elliot Diringer on the Bush administration:
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 Poznań. 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 Poznań. 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.
Joe Romm responds, “At best, this is a very inartful way of saying that ‘not much was going to happen at Poznań 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!”
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.”