The Prez in Denmark

Obama’s trip to the climate conference in Denmark could end in failure.

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But flooding the zone with American officials may not be enough to convince doubtful factions that the United States means business. After all, it was Obama’s Democratic predecessor, Bill Clinton, who helped neuter the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the last binding global agreement to stop climate change. More than 10 years later, the debate is over how much developed nations should a) cut their emissions and b) provide funds to prevent poor countries from experiencing catastrophic climate change. Despite the efforts of American lawmakers such as Sens. John Kerry and Barbara Boxer, Congress remains opposed to a federal program of curbing emissions. And the president is still, as Peter Brown wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “the leader of the ‘haves’” in a dispute over climate aid.

Obama did his best to strengthen the United States’ hand before hitting Copenhagen, touting the energy-efficiency provisions contained in the February American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, and stooping to call home insulation “sexy” at an event earlier this week. Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced that the United States will contribute $85 million over five years to a $350 million pot that will promote clean-energy technology. Clinton announced U.S. support for $100 billion in funding for poor nations in Denmark Thursday. But Stern, as Obama’s mouthpiece at the conference, has been playing the bad cop, demanding strict accountability standards for nations that do receive assistance, and denying that rich nations have any sort of “climate debt or reparations” for their century of pollution. “Reparations to me convey a sense of culpability, guilt,” Stern said at a briefing. “I don’t think that’s a legitimate way to look at it.”

Poorer nations, especially in Africa, beg to differ with Stern—and by association, their adopted son, the half-Kenyan Obama. The G77, representing Sub-Saharan Africa, India and China, boycotted negotiations for half a day this week, blaming rich countries like the United States for weak targets and aid commitments that amount to a tenth of what developing nations would prefer. Several African climate negotiators took the occasion of Obama’s attendance as an opportunity to take some shots across his bow. “The world cannot afford to give [Obama] any more time,” Nnimmo Bassey, the Nigerian chair of Friends of The Earth, told reporters in Denmark. “Whether you’re in a white house or a black house, nobody has any more time.”

These divergent negotiating positions, even among the broad categories of developed and developing nations, add to Obama’s burden. The European Union has pledged larger emissions cuts and a firm amount for climate aid, for example, but has had a system of cap and trade in place for years. The United States, on the other hand, has signaled it will make smaller reductions and pledge less money, and has no significant structure in place to reduce emissions. Actors like China, which is a major economy, a major polluter, and also a developing nation, scramble this dynamic further. While India, another big polluter, is demanding to see draft text as early as Tuesday, China has been cagey about enumerating its domestic efforts. “I have to say the parties are quite far apart on a fair number of issues,” Stern admitted at a briefing earlier in the week.

The rich-poor rift closed somewhat this week, when several developing nations agreed to protect and replant decimated forests in exchange for up to $37 billion in climate aid. Clinton stressed unity in her remarks to delegates in Copenhagen. "It can no longer be about us versus them -- this group of nations pitted against that group," she said. "We all face the same challenge together."

But Obama’s personal diplomacy will take center stage Friday when he addresses the body. In preparation for the endgame, Obama made a series of calls to world leaders from rich and poor nations alike, including Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh, which faces climate-related flooding, Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia, which had led the African Union preparations for Copenhagen, and G20 partners like Lula Da Silva of Brazil, Nicolas Sarkozy of France and Angela Merkel of Germany. He won’t, however, have much to say that he hasn’t already said before. In fact, his September speech on climate change before the United Nations in New York was respectfully, but not enthusiastically, received. Barring some late-breaking agreements on the thorniest climate-related issues, even Obama’s 11th hour drama may not save the day.