The Prez in Denmark

The Prez in Denmark,” The Root, 17 December 2009.

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

When President Barack Obama touches down in Copenhagen, Denmark, he will be entering a hornet’s nest of urgent, competing priorities that will test his negotiating skills like never before. Far from the kumbaya conference that one might expect for a gathering devoted to saving the planet, the two weeks of United Nations-sponsored climate talks have been a pitched battle—a literal street fight, at times—to balance the economic interests of the diverse nations in attendance. Poor, industrializing countries are demanding climate aid; rich nations are wary of overpromising both financial assistance and emissions cuts; while island nations and global hot spots seek some assurance that they will not be left to drown or burn.

Since stepping into the national spotlight, Obama’s political image has been that of a master negotiator: As a legislator in Illinois, he helped to broker a deal between Republicans, Democrats, civil liberties advocates and the police regarding the interrogation of suspects. On the campaign trail, he sold himself as a sensible liberal who could “disagree without being disagreeable.” But in Washington, conventional politics have trumped his attempts at good-faith negotiation on issues such as health care reform. In the Middle East, his team of dedicated diplomats has not been particularly successful in promoting the American position. And the last time Obama tried to turn on the charm in Copenhagen—in support of Chicago’s failed bid to host the Olympic Games—was hardly encouraging.

The climate conference is the first test of the political goodwill that flipped American favorability ratings abroad from 17 to 71 percent since George W. Bush left office. While Obama’s major foreign policy addresses in Berlin, Cairo, and most recently, Oslo, have won plaudits from international observers, the Copenhagen crowd will be a tough one.

The White House upped the stakes significantly when it made the choice to bring Obama to the end of the climate talks rather than the beginning. “Based on his conversations with other leaders and the progress that has already been made … the president believes that continued U.S. leadership can be most productive through his participation at the end,” said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs. That decision, said Andrew Light of the liberal Center for American Progress, “may well have prevented the meeting from ending in a dangerous stalemate.” The president also seems to have faith in his ability to close a deal. But will the Obama treatment—a speech and a handshake—really make a difference?

Chief among Obama’s challenges is the nation he is representing. The United States, with or without a smart, black president, has been an outsized contributor to the problem climate activists have been trying to solve for decades. Mindful that the previous American administration was openly derisive of environmental issues, Obama has stacked his Copenhagen team with seven key cabinet secretaries, a domestic climate czar in Carol Browner, a foreign climate envoy in Todd Stern, former Vice President Al Gore and, in a surprise development, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. “We have come to Copenhagen ready to take the steps necessary to achieve a comprehensive and operational new agreement that will provide a foundation for long-term, sustainable economic growth,” said Clinton in Denmark Thursday.

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.

Dayo Olopade

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