In announcing President Obama's decision to stop by the climate talks in Copenhagen next month, the White House today detailed the administration's efforts so far to curtail climate change, calling it "an impressive resume of American action and accomplishments over the last ten months."
The administration plans to keep burnishing that image in Copenhagen with almost daily speeches by U.S. Cabinet secretaries during the 12-day conference, the White House said.
The president, meanwhile, plans — "in the context of an overall deal in Copenhagen that includes robust mitigation contributions from China and the other emerging economies" — to offer a mid-term U.S. greenhouse gas reduction target in the range of 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020.
The target would be in line with legislation passed by the U.S. House, but it still falls well short of the reductions called for by the IPCC.
The decision for Obama to attend the Copenhagen conference, even if for only a few hours, came as pressure from home and abroad increased for the president to take an active part in supporting international climate action.
Critics, many of whom backed him in the presidential campaign when he promised stronger U.S. action, were quieted — at least temporarily.
"President Obama's decision to attend the Copenhagen climate summit is an important statement of his deep personal commitment to addressing this issue," said Eileen Claussen of the Pew Center of Global Climate Change.
"It signals his determination both to enact strong U.S. energy and climate legislation and to secure a comprehensive international agreement ensuring that other countries do their part as well."
Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen sent invitations to the leaders of 191 countries last week requesting their attendance at the Dec. 7–18 U.N.-led summit. On Sunday, he announced that more than 60 had confirmed, including the UK's Gordon Brown, Germany's Angela Merkel and Japan's Yukio Hatoyama. But Obama — as well as Chinese President Hu Jintao — had been conspicuously absent from the list of confirmed attendees.
Obama's visit is expected to be brief and, significantly, very early in the conference. Decisions are not likely to be reached until the last several days.
"If his presence during the latter days of the COP becomes necessary to secure the right commitments, we hope the president will be willing to return to Copenhagen with the rest of the world's leaders during the final stages of the negotiations," said World Wildlife Fund Climate Program Director Keya Chatterjee.
Obama will be in Copenhagen on Dec. 9 before continuing to Oslo, Norway, to receive his Nobel Peace Prize on Dec. 10. Officials were not sure today of the president's exact itinerary or whether he would spend the night in Denmark. "We haven't picked a hotel yet," quipped spokesman Robert Gibbs.
The administration will still have a powerful presence at the Copenhagen summit. The U.S. delegation will include Cabinet secretaries and other top administration officials, including the secretaries of the Interior, Agriculture, Commerce and Energy, as well as EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, Council on Environmental Quality Chair Nancy Sutley and Assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Change Carol Browner.
The delegation will be in attendance "throughout" the conference, Browner told reporters today.
Its members will be publicizing the administration's climate actions at a "U.S. Center" at Copenhagen that will host "a unique and interactive forum to share our story with the world," according to the White House statement. Those accomplishments, it notes, include the recovery act's investment of more than $80 billion in clean energy; new efficiency standards for vehicles and appliances; and a push to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies globally, among other actions.
The midterm target that Obama is expected to put forward at Copenhagen will be "in the range of 17 percent below 2005 levels in 2020 and ultimately in line with final U.S. energy and climate legislation," the White House said. That is expected to included a reduction of 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, 42 percent by 2030 and 83 percent by 2050.
"Just to be clear," Browner told reporters, "it's in the range of 17 percent and we will obviously make adjustments when we complete the domestic legislative work."
The American Clean Energy and Security (ACES) bill passed by the House in June aims for 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 — equivalent to a reduction of about 4 percent below 1990 levels. The Senate bill currently under consideration targets a reduction of 20 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, about 7 percent from 1990 levels.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has recommended a 25-40 percent decrease of greenhouse gas emissions from industrialized countries by 2020 — based on 1990 levels. Several nations already feeling the effects of climate change have been echoing that call. (According to the EPA, the United States' GHG emissions in 1990 were 6,099 teragrams of CO2 equivalents; in 2005, that number was 7,109, an increase of about 15 percent.)
To put the Obama commitment in a global context, the UK pledged a 34 percent cut from 1990 levels by 2020 back in April, and Japan's Hotoyama has promised a 25 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions from 1990 levels by 2020. China, which has surpassed the U.S. as the world leader in carbon dioxide emissions, is expected to make an announcement about its GHG emissions targets in the next week.
"It is essential that the countries of the world, led by the major economies, do what it takes to produce a strong, operational agreement that will both launch us on a concerted effort to combat climate change and serve as a stepping stone to a legally binding treaty," the White House statement said, adding, "The president is working closely with Congress to pass energy and climate legislation as soon as possible."
Wednesday's announcement could be seen as a response to a growing disappointment and clamor from those who see Obama as dragging his feet on taking the lead on climate action promised by his campaign.
Bill McKibben, environmental author and co-founder of the climate activist site 350.org, called Obama to task in a Sunday Washington Post op/ed for trying to "spin" the idea of reaching a binding agreement at Copenhagen as unrealistic and for failing to take action that is stronger and more in line with the most recent science.
Hopes for a binding treaty at Copenhagen were dashed when leaders from the top economic powers announced last week that the goal was no longer practical. Instead, they hope the conference will be a step toward a binding agreement that could be reached in the next year.
The UN-led talks seemed even less significant without the U.S. president's presence, as many observers had seen an Obama-less summit as lacking the credibility needed for substantive action.
"Obama's attendance at these talks will demonstrate that America is giving this challenge the attention it deserves," Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope said after Wednesday's announcement.
(Official White House photo by Pete Souza)