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U.S. Lethargy at Copenhagen Might Be Best for Climate

The U.S. Senate's balkiness at passing a weak-kneed symbolic climate plan leaves an open door to a genuine and meaningful American bill.
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Al Gore ominously predicted in September that "the road to Copenhagen goes through the U.S. Senate." It was his not-so-subtle way of suggesting that the global community couldn't do much during climate negotiations in Denmark if the U.S. didn't first pass legislation at home.

The Copenhagen summit is set to begin in one week, and President Obama just announced on Wednesday that he plans to attend. But as is widely expected — by even Obama himself — no dramatic announcements, breakthroughs or photo ops are on tap. So should we — and the world — blame the Senate, the upper chamber of Congress with notoriously finicky procedural hurdles?

The easy answer, and one shared by many disappointed environmentalists, is yes. Here's another:

"We should thank the Senate," said Robert Stavins, director of the Harvard Project on International Climate Agreements. "We should thank this administration for the fact that international action, when it happens, is going to be meaningful, not symbolic. I feel that very strongly, having spent huge amounts of time studying and working in international climate change, that there's one kind of agreement that could be achieved in Copenhagen, and that would be the Kyoto protocol on steroids."

In other words, another short-term agreement with weak enforcement that has little effect on emissions and even less chance of being ratified by the U.S.

A longer-term, successful process has two simultaneous tracks. The global community must arrive at consensus on the vexing architectural specifics of any deal: Will developing and industrial countries participate according to different standards? What financial commitments will the First World make to the Third? Will countries take ownership of both their historic emissions (where the U.S. is the leading culprit) and their future emissions (where China now leads)?

On the second track, the U.S. must pass domestic legislation that would represent real commitment from a political body prone to shrugging off international treaties. The House passed a climate bill in June, but hopes for Senate passage (a statistically trickier thing to obtain) before Copenhagen were dashed this month.

"Europeans and people I talk with have come to understand this," Stavins said, "that the greatest commitment the United States could make is not signing an international piece of paper, which essentially has no force of law, rather it's the United States passing domestic legislation."

The problem is that while both tracks can — and need to — proceed side-by-side, the international agreement won't reach a conclusion until the American legislative process does first. President Obama — unlike President Clinton with the Kyoto Treaty — is not expected to sign an agreement he doesn't think will be ratified back home.

Here, the world is tied up in a waiting game that's at the mercy of both the American political system and this particular political moment in time. Democrats (including the two independents who caucus with them) have a rare 60 seats in the Senate. But many coal-state Democrats are unconvinced a climate bill won't hurt their economies more than it helps the environment.

Everyone, meanwhile, is eyeing the 2010 midterm election. Senators at risk are likely to eschew an unpopular vote too close to Election Day. But at what point does Congress get too close to election season to tackle controversial legislation? February? March? And what happens if — as is likely — Democrats no longer have a supermajority come next December?

"This particular window is going to close, and we don't know if a transom going to open, a door is going to open, or just another window," Stavins said. "It depends on things that have nothing to do with climate policy, like the state of the economy, if President Obama gets a big win on health care, does he build or dissipate political capital? It's not going to be the specifics of climate policy."

Stavins, with his long view of getting the right agreement over the photogenic one (a view that may be hard for environmental groups to swallow), is willing to wait if this opportunity disappears.

"I hope it doesn't," he said, "but if it does, there will be other opportunities that will come. That doesn't mean you shouldn't start. You have to start the marathon, you shouldn't be sitting down at the start line."

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