The U.S. Role: We’re back…maybe

The current political transition in the U.S. is affecting our national strategy here in Poznan. The current head negotiator, Harlan Watson, is still taking his cues from the Bush Administration, which makes the U.S. more irrelevant than ever. At a press conference yesterday, Watson said that his team has had no contact with the Obama administration. The short session with the U.S. delegation Monday revealed little of substance. All Harlan could say was that his team was trying to keep all options open for the incoming administration.


Far more revealing (sort of) was a briefing by a U.S. Congressional delegation given later in the day. This event had much better attendance on the assumption that the assembled staffers representing Rep. Dingell and Senators Kerry, Lugar, and Snowe would actually shed some light on future U.S. action on climate. At least the staffers present were representing politicians who actually will be in office next year.


Those expecting clear direction on the future of U.S. climate policy were left hanging. Lori Schmidt from Rep. Dingell’s office started out by informing the audience that anyone expecting to get a firm read on the future of U.S. climate policy from the event should leave now. She said it’s still not clear what Obama will do, although the appointment of an energy/climate czar is one possibility. She suggested listening to Obama’s speech at Gov. Schwarzenegger’s recent climate summit for a preview of U.S. climate policy. See:


One of the key questions going forward seems to be whether there will be domestic legislation on climate change before Copenhagen and if said legislation is a prerequisite for the U.S. to seriously engage at COP 15 next year. The moderator from EDF characterized this as a chicken and egg problem.


All the staffers stressed that while there is a Democratic consensus around the need to move quickly on climate change, the devil is in the details and progress will be slow. Any bill will have to go through several committees in both the House and Senate and, ultimately, be hammered out in Conference.  Along the way, very tough compromises on tricky issues such as emissions allocations will have to be worked out.  


Mark Helmke, an aide to Sen. Lugar, remarked that climate legislation will entail a fundamental reordering of the U.S. economy and making carbon into a profitable commodity is not to be taken lightly. After reminding the audience of the key 60 and 67 vote thresholds in the Senate, he mentioned that while the U.S. wants to show leadership on climate, it also doesn’t want to create “false hopes.” Several staffers were adamant that the U.S. treatment of Kyoto was a mistake and that the Clinton administration should never have signed an agreement they knew wouldn’t be ratified by the Senate.


Kathleen Frangione, a Kerry staffer, said that her boss will be in Poznan on Wednesday and that he recently declared “We’re back” vis a vis the international negotiations process. Considering that Kerry is the incoming chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, this should carry some weight. She thinks that legislation is not necessary for the U.S. to enter into an agreement at Copenhagen, although the bipartisan consensus prior to the negotiations will influence what can be agreed to.


A staffer for Senator Olympia Snowe presented a series of slides with quotes from past Senate debates (Climate change legislation will: kill jobs, raise energy prices, expand the scope of the federal government, etc.) to illustrate the nature of domestic opposition. The effect was to remind the audience that many of the obstacles to climate legislation and international agreements will remain the same. Reactionary legislators who know little about world affairs and the constituents who elect them still have enough sway and votes to block the process unless they are brought into a very big tent. When one audience member asked about the U.S. reaction to recent moves on emissions by China, the Snowe staffer replied that she suspects the many Senators aren’t even aware of what China’s current position is. Even though Obama was elected and everyone expects momentum on climate, it seems the U.S. may remain weighed down by a few obstinate Senators for years to come.


On a positive note, some of the less obstinate legislators might be swayed through reasonable compromises such as providing energy or carbon tax rebates to low-income families. Also, a Boxer staffer mentioned that an amendment for adaptation funding was added to one of the climate bills this past year. He suggested that evangelicals could be a potential ally on adaptation if lobbied effectively.


The bottom line seems to be that anyone wanting to know the future of U.S. engagement in the post-2012 era is going to have to wait for the arrival of the post-1/20 era first.   


–Andre Mershon