Now that the dust has settled on last week’s UNFCCC Bonn climate talks, one thing is clear: The United States must be the architect and protector of a meaningful post-Kyoto global climate change deal, and it’s not there yet.
The lack of strong U.S. commitments on vital issues – medium-term mitigation targets and financing for developing nations – clouded the two-week talks, even as President Obama’s delegation wowed nations with its much-heralded international debut.
In a nutshell, they said, the world’s appreciation of Obama’s re-engagement is high. But expectations for stronger leadership from the new president are much higher.
On targets, the Obama team has pledged to stabilize emissions at 1990 levels by 2020 – a fundamental sea change from President Bush but inadequate to what science demands.
The 2020 target, a campaign promise of Obama’s, has to be steeper, said Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists:
"The reality is, if you don’t do enough soon, the scenarios about what you have to do later are economically and politically unrealistic," he said. "It’s key that the U.S. is the linchpin to the global level of ambition on this.
"The European Union has been out there for a long time with their 20 percent unilateral, 30 percent of comparative effort offer on the table. But when you look at the rest of the industrialized countries – Canada, Japan, Australia, others – there’s a lot of waiting to see what the U.S. is going to do.
"If the US doesn’t lift the level of ambition of its target, it’s going to result in those countries not lifting the level of ambition of theirs, and may even cause some backsliding within some of the European countries as they look collectively to the Annex I target."
Another giant problem at Bonn was the minimal movement that was made on financing for mitigation and adaptation measures in developing countries.
Financing, even more than targets, is expected to be the heart of the deal in Copenhagen; it could easily make or break it.
One of the most notable breakthroughs at the Bali talks in 2007 was when developing nations agreed to take on enhanced nationally appropriate mitigation strategies in return for support for financing and clean energy technology.
But where are the specific money commitments from rich nations that were supposed to follow? What percentage of financing will come from public sector funding versus private sources?
To the dismay of developing countries, no rich nation, with the exception of Norway, brought detailed solutions to those nagging questions to the Bonn talks.
The U.S., Meyer said, must reveal a firm stance on the critical financing issue by June, the next round of UNFCCC talks.
Next up on the meeting circuit, though, is President Obama’s Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate, to be held April 27-28. And hopes are high. The 16 largest carbon-polluting nations have been invited.
Angela Anderson, the program director of the U.S. Climate Action Network, said there are "very high expectations" that the forum could help to crack the long-standing stalemates that have tainted UN talks.
Let’s hope that’s true because little negotiating time remains until the final December meeting in Copenhagen, during which the post-Kyoto pact should be completed.
If the U.S. is not more aggressive, and the historical sticking points are not solved, a meaningful deal will not happen. It’s as simple as that.
The good news is that President Obama seems committed to the sweeping global leadership the world is calling for. And America, a nation of boundless ingenuity, is capable of building the foundations of a global clean energy economy.
The bad news is that the most serious threat to a stronger U.S. position is domestic politics.
Congress has to get behind any Copenhagen pact for it to be approved, and there are a number of senators and representatives, many hailing from fossil fuel states, that do not accept the reality of the need for a clean energy transition.
Which means the White House will have to wage – and ultimately win – a multi-front domestic battle to succeed.
Can the Obama administration pull that off in eight months. More to the point, will it try?