21 days to go: The role of the US

Countdown to Copenhagen: The President's lonely dilemma

In the fourth part of our series ahead of the UN climate summit, Michael McCarthy analyses the crucial role of the United States, the world's current superpower

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Can the world reach a new deal to combat climate change without the world's richest country, the world's sole superpower? Such is the question looming over the Copenhagen climate change summit, now only three weeks away, as the international community waits anxiously to see if President Barack Obama can publicly commit the United States to action on global warming.

If he does, it may bring a global agreement in its train. If he does not, the chances of a worthwhile deal in Denmark are virtually zero. The decision is his. A lonely one, or what?

The US leader is caught in a nexus of political pressures, national and international, surrounding America's response to the climate question which have been building up for 12 years and now have to be resolved. Although he has made it clear he thinks the climate issue is vitally important, in the run-up to the Copenhagen conference he faces an acute dilemma: whether or not to promise specific American action on slashing greenhouse gases, in the shape of a target for cutting CO2 emissions by 2020, and finance to help developing countries before the US Congress, which would have to sanction such action, is ready to do so.

The rest of the world is looking to America for this, for several reasons. Until overtaken recently by China, the US had for more than a century been the biggest of all carbon emitters, producing in 1990 more than a third of the global total for less than five per cent of the world's population (it is currently responsible for something over a fifth).

It thus has an enormous historical responsibility for the CO2 which is already in the atmosphere. So do the other long-industrialised countries, including Britain – but America alone probably contributed about 30 per cent of the present total amount, and Edward Markey, a Democratic Congressman who is one of the leading figures behind the push for the US to act, said last week: "When the Chinese and Indians look up to the sky, they see red, white and blue CO2."

This historical liability was explicitly recognised in first global warming treaty – the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, signed at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 – which laid down that, in responding to the climate problem, nations had "common but differentiated responsibilities". That meant that, five years later, when the treaty spawned the first agreement actually to cut emissions – the Kyoto protocol – it was the rich nations which agreed to do the cutting, while the developing countries were allowed to continue with business as usual.

At first, the US enthusiastically embraced Kyoto. At least, the executive branch did, in the shape of Al Gore, Vice-President in Bill Clinton's Democratic administration. Gore was one of the key players in sealing the deal in last-minute negotiations in the Japanese city in December 1997, agreeing that the US would cut its CO2 emissions to 7 per cent below their 1990 levels by 2012.

But when the details were examined by the US Senate, a very different view was taken. The deal was seen as a very poor one for the US, obliging it to burden its industry with expensive carbon-cutting measures, while China, a major competitor, was obliged to do nothing. The Senate declined to ratify the treaty. Worse, when George W Bush took office for the Republicans in 2001, he withdrew the US from Kyoto completely.

There followed eight years of what might be described as climate obstructionism, with the oil industry caucus at the heart of the Bush administration doing everything it could to deny the growing body of scientific evidence that climate change was a mortal threat and gathering speed, until the fourth report of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2007 was so definitive that even the Bush White House felt obliged to accept it.

The next year, Barack Obama was back with the Democrats, and, throughout his presidential campaign, made it clear that he would act on climate, even giving a specific campaign pledge: he would seek to cut US emissions back to 14 per cent below their 2005 level by 2020. But when Obama took office, a shadow hung over that pledge: the shadow of Kyoto. The new administration was desperate not to repeat the miscalculation of Al Gore, and make an international promise which it could not subsequently deliver because the US Congress would not agree it.

So the Obama administration's attitude has been to let Congress take the lead on climate; and in this it has so far been fortunate. Two Democrat members of the House of Representatives, Henry Waxman from California and Edward Markey from Massachusetts (referred to above) introduced a climate bill in April, which would impose a yearly-tightening cap on US national carbon emissions, screwing them down to 17 per cent below 2005 levels by 2020, while bringing in an emissions-trading scheme as a way of making it happen. The Waxman-Markey bill was eventually approved by the narrowest of margins – 219 votes to 212 – on June 26 this year.

This was a landmark moment – the first time the American legislature had approved a measure to curb the expansion of greenhouse gases. It meant that America was firmly back in the business of dealing with the climate threat. But it was only half of what needed to be done, as, for a climate bill to become law, it has to pass through the Senate as well. So at the end of September, a climate bill was introduced into the upper chamber by Senator John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat, and Senator Barbara Boxer, a Democrat from California.

The Kerry-Boxer bill is broadly similar to the Waxman-Markey bill except that it proposes an even tighter target for US emissions cuts – 20 per cent on a 2005 baseline by 2020. But there is now no way it can complete its passage through the Senate before the Copenhagen conference, leaving Obama with an acute dilemma.

Does he put "US numbers", as the jargon has it, for emissions cuts and financial aid, on the negotiating table at Copenhagen off his own bat, before the Senate has agreed them? He is constitutionally entitled to do so, but, if he does, he may be seen by Senators as overstepping the mark and the legislation may fail to get through. "In the end, he can only deliver with Congress's support, and he cannot afford to undermine that," said Elliot Diringer, vice-president for international strategies of the Washington-based Pew Center on Global Climate Change. "He can only act if he is highly confident that he won't spoil the prospects of legislation."

But if he does not act, it is unlikely that other countries will agree to make binding commitments in the Danish capital. "Without the US numbers, the prospects for any agreement are low," Elliot Diringer said.

It's a vital, difficult and lonely decision – the buck stops on Obama's desk in the Oval office. And in the next three weeks, he has to make it.

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