Obama’s uncertain climate change future

“Obama has failed the world on climate change,” German magazine Der Spiegel announced after it turns out that the president was unable to persuade the Chinese to accept firm emission-reduction targets, or his own Senate to pass his cap-and-trade bill. A serious matter, if you believe scientist/activist James Lovelock’s warning, “Human survival itself is at risk.”

So when some 20,000 United Nations bureaucrats, representatives of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and world leaders from 192 nations descend on Copenhagen in a few weeks for the 15th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, they will not be able to sign off on a legally-binding substitute for the expiring Kyoto Protocol.

The delegates are to consider a 181-page draft that calls for developed countries to pay an “adaptation debt” to developing countries to the tune of somewhere between $70 billion and $150 billion per year. This would achieve a goal of U.N. bureaucrats from well before they heard of global warming: The redistribution of wealth from richer to poorer nations.

If German chancellor Angela Merkel prevails, the European Union, eager for all nations to set the sort of emissions targets it set for itself and then failed to meet, will contribute about $50 billion, leaving about $100 billion for other developed nations to cough up. But the EU’s 27 members are deadlocked over how much each member-country should contribute.

There is agreement on one thing: The stumbling block to a final treaty is the United States. President Barack Obama may be popular in Europe as the non-Bush, but on this issue America remains Europe’s favorite piñata, and not only in Der Spiegel.

“President Obama has created great expectations around the world. Now we expect the U.S. to contribute,” Sweden’s Environment Minister Andreas Carlgren said.

Added Connie Hedegaard, his Danish counterpart, “I remind the U.S. that … the expectation out there worldwide and among populations and the young [is for] the U.S. to deliver.”

Unable to sign a binding treaty in Copenhagen, the president called for “an accord that covers all of the issues … and has immediate operational effect.” The only way he can sign a deal with “immediate operational effect” — without congressional approval — would be to have the Environmental Protection Agency accomplish by regulation what he cannot by legislation, a step he just might take if he takes the Senate’s decision this week to postpone consideration of cap-and-trade until next spring as a signal that it won’t act then, or ever.

Meanwhile China, the world’s largest emitter of CO2, a principal greenhouse gas, and India have refused to agree to emission-reduction targets. As the Chinese undoubtedly patiently explained once again during Obama’s stopover, their position is that the industrialized world created the warming problem and so is poorly placed to ask emerging economies to slow the economic growth that is at long last raising the living standards of their impoverished masses.

By the time the delegates reconvene in Mexico City in December 2010, Obama hopes to restore his international authority by pushing through cap-and-trade, and setting firm ceilings on U.S. emissions. That, say the delegates heading towards Copenhagen, is essential since only American leadership-by-example — acceptance of tight curbs on its own emissions, and willingness to fund a hefty portion of the wealth and technology transfers demanded by poorer countries — can produce a meaningful treaty.

For now, the delegates have to content themselves with the president’s decision to show up, presumably by strolling across the Skagerrak Strait to Copenhagen immediately after accepting his Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo. Surely, he can persuade the 20,000 delegates that the half-loaf emerging from their meeting is sufficient to sustain them for a year or so.

Although recent climate data suggest that the herd-like response of environmental absolutists might be plain wrong; low-probability risks with high-magnitude consequences cannot be ignored. But Obama’s task of getting the Senate to act has been made more difficult now that it is clear that he might use cap-and-trade as a first step to signing on to an international agreement that would transfer substantial enforcement power to the UN, and large amounts of U.S. taxpayer funds to developing nations.

Meanwhile, the inability of Obama to deliver on his promises means that the Copenhagen meeting has become merely a step on the road to a yet-to-be-drafted treaty that will replace the Kyoto protocol. But don’t underestimate the staying power of the environmentalists — they are marathoners, not sprinters.

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