Direct from Copenhagen: U.S. Congress prevents progress

Lisa Curtis

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If attending the United Nations 15th climate conference in Copenhagen has taught me anything, it is the incredible power of the United States Congress.

I really want to like the U.S. delegation. I just got out of a briefing with Jonathan Pershing, the Special Envoy for Climate Change and Lisa Jackson, the new Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Both are very smart, charismatic people who want what is best for the planet but who also have to grapple with the disturbing reality of international climate negotiations.

The reality is that the U.S. delegation is terrified of another Kyoto. The U.S. Congress refused to ratify the Kyoto protocol in 1997 largely because it did not set binding emissions targets on developing countries. In the words of Jonathan Pershing, “We need symmetry in Copenhagen or Congress won’t accept it.”

In the eyes of the U.S. delegation, “symmetry” means that major emitters in the developing world: such as China, India, Indonesia, Brazil and South Africa: must commit to targets.

The BASIC group    (Brazil, South Africa, India and China) has protested that the developed world needs to lead the way and uphold the principal of “common but differentiated responsibilities” that 189 countries have ratified under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

The preamble of the UNFCCC  acknowledges that  ” the global nature of climate change calls for the widest possible cooperation by all countries and their participation in an effective and appropriate international response, in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities and their social and economic conditions.”

The U.S. delegation argues that developing countries are forgetting the last phrase of the “common but differentiated responsibilities” clause, the part that talks about “respective capabilities.”

According to Pershing, “respective capabilities” implies that the U.S. has great responsibility but this responsibility does not end at the U.S. border. He spoke of the assets of other countries, China’s trillions of U.S. debt, India’s  methane biodigester technology and Brazil’s biofuel technology.

The U.S. delegation firmly believes that America has already done much and that it is now time for other countries to put something on the table.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson spoke of the recent decision by the EPA to finalize its finding that greenhouse gases pose a threat to human health and therefore can be regulated under the Clean Air Act.

Laughing, Jackson said, “The U.S. government has decided that CO2 is a threat.” Then, explaining her laughter, she clarified “I laugh because we’re the U.S. government and we knew that.”

Unfortunately, I doubt that many of the delegations from other countries would find that statement so funny. For the U.S. to come to the table offering what amounts to less than a 4 percent emissions reduction, and a domestic strategy of only recognizing that greenhouse gases pose a threat, is absolutely absurd.

The amount of financing we have proposed, our “fair share” of $10 billion per year, is also vastly inadequate.

As the current, albeit struggling, world superpower, the U.S. cannot hide behind paltry emissions reductions and laughable domestic programs. The European Union has proposed to cut their emissions 20 percent by 2020 and France recently proposed a Climate Justice Fund of US $60 billion per year for ten years.

I truly believe that the U.S. delegation and the Obama administration would love to make those type of pledges. As a trained geophysicist and a chemical engineer respectively, both Pershing and Jackson recognize the urgent mandate climate change provides for drastic emissions cuts.

However, it’s impossible to explain to the U.S. Congress (and the powerful fossil fuel industry that controls it) that the U.S. has a responsibility to provide leadership on climate change.

The fact that developed countries are responsible for 75 percent of the ghg emissions in our atmosphere while developing countries will face 75 percent of the negative effects of climate change seems to imply a climate debt.

This climate debt has been widely discussed by almost every country, with the notable exception of the United States.

Our strong sense of individualism seems to have blinded us from the global problem of climate change. The U.S. delegation knows this, and they know that they cannot return to the U.S. Congress with a treaty that truly recognizes the United States’ responsibility.

I love my country but I’m having trouble justifying our inability to provide leadership in Copenhagen.

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