Obama flies into climate minefield

2009-12-18 10:21

 

US President Barack Obama was flying blind on Friday into the

nervy, uncertain end-game of the UN climate summit, pursuing a landmark deal,

but risking damaging political fallout if things go wrong.

Obama left Washington late on Thursday with the two-week Copenhagen

conference on a knife-edge and facing a stiff test of his diplomatic mettle,

amid warnings of a looming “catastrophe” in Denmark.

“The president will be coming to the most complicated, complex,

international meeting that he has seen as president,” said a senior US

official.

“He will be very well positioned to have an impact here,” the

official said, but admitted: “I do not know what the outcome will be at the

end.”

Constrained by the delicate domestic politics of climate change

back home, Obama faces high expectations.

The United States is pushing for an “operational agreement” to pave

the way for a binding treaty on cutting carbon emissions next year – which would

have more teeth than a flurry of mere pledges of future action by nations.

Some leaders appear to harbour hopes the American president will

unpick a deadlock between developed and developing states.

“As far as I know he’s coming here to show leadership – what

everybody expects from the United States of America and from President Obama

himself,” said European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso.

But exactly what Obama can offer is uncertain.

Washington has already said it will not budge on its offer of

curbing US carbon emissions by 17% from 2005 levels by 2020 – less than the EU

offers, but as much as the US political climate will bear.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Thursday that Washington

would pay into a fund worth $100 billion a year by 2020 to help poor countries

cope with climate change, but left the exact figure unspoken.

Officials warned Obama will likely steer clear of specifics when he

addresses world leaders.

Generally, US presidents prefer to wager their prestige only when a

major foreign policy win is already locked in, to avoid the sting of coming home

empty-handed.

Yet Obama headed to Copenhagen for the second time within three

months, hazarding big chunks of personal political clout with a favourable

outcome for his mission up in the air.

Denmark stirs rotten memories inside the White House.

In October, Obama flew into political embarrassment, when the

International Olympic Committee snubbed his bid to secure the 2016 summer games

for Chicago.

It was a political goldmine for domestic foes who think the world

sees Obama as a soft touch.

The White House on Thursday appeared to be rolling out the first

steps of a damage control operation as the mood turned dark in Denmark.

“Coming back with an empty agreement would be far worse than coming

back empty-handed,” said Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs.

Clinton, meanwhile, accused developing nations, apparently with an

eye on China, of backsliding on transparency requirements designed to prove they

live up to promised emission cuts.

“If there is not even a commitment to pursue transparency, that’s

kind of a deal breaker for us,” Clinton said. It was not clear if she was

playing the “bad cop,” or preparing a face-saving exit for her boss.

The climate conference is the latest international crisis in the

president’s frenetic first year in power, including the worsening Afghan war,

Iran’s nuclear gauntlet and the economic meltdown.

In Copenhagen, a familiar scenario is unfolding, with Obama

balancing his multilateral global engagement with a vulnerable political front

back home as isolationist sentiment rises.

US sceptics warn a domestic cap-and-trade plan to cut emissions

logjammed in the Senate will strangle the nascent economic recovery.

At the same time, Obama’s bargaining position in Copenhagen and the

hopes of the summit themselves are hampered by Senate foot-dragging, and the

lack of a new US global warming law limits Obama’s capacity to compromise in

Copenhagen.

But should he go home with no deal, prospects for Congressional

action on the cap and trade bill will absorb a huge blow.

Opponents of Obama’s plans to rein in US emissions will ask why

Washington should accept punishing hits to its own economy if its major

developing rivals like China and India will not also pay a price?


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