Dispatch December 2009

Obama Plays Hardball

In his eight-minute speech, the U.S. president reprimanded the members of the Copenhagen summit for writing "empty words"

No deal. Not even a fig leaf.

That seemed to be the implication of President Barack Obama's much-anticipated speech at the Copenhagen climate summit. 

He arrived at the Bella Center at 9:30 in the morning and immediately huddled in a non-scheduled and tense meeting with 18 other world leaders, including Chinese Vice Foreign Minister He Yafei. As Obama and the others talked, White House officials told reporters that Obama had ripped up his schedule for the day—supposedly the last day of the conference—and was attempting to rescue the troubled negotiations. He apparently did not succeed.

After the meeting ended, the summit began its most high-profile session. Danish Prime Minister Lars Rasmussen opened the gathering, saying that it is "not too often U.S. leaders get a chance to chart out a new course for our planet." No such course was forthcoming. Minutes later, Chinese Premier Wen Jibao hailed his own nation's efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions. But he offered no give on the key matters that had been raised by the United States: China placing its emissions reductions within a binding treaty and subjecting them to outside verification. Wen indicated that China would keep its emissions limits voluntary and unilateral. Next Brazilian President Luiz Lula da Silva said it would take a "miracle" to reach an accord at Copenhagen. He complained that due to the lack of progress in the negotiations he had been forced to participate in a 2:00 am meeting with other world leaders. He declared that "each country has to have the confidence to do its own oversight"—seemingly siding with China on this front.

Then it was Obama's turn. His eight-minutes of remarks signaled a global train wreck. Not hiding his anger and frustration, he said, "I think our ability to take collective action is in doubt." He maintained that his administration has started to mount an "ambitious" plan to cut emissions. And he contended that it is "in our mutual interest to achieve a global accord in which we agree to  steps, and to hold each other accountable for certain commitments." According to his prepared text, Obama was next supposed to say, "I believe that the pieces of that accord are now clear." (Emphasis added.) Instead, he asserted, "I believe that the pieces of that accord should now be clear." That is, there was no consensus among the major global leaders regarding what a deal would look like—not even one that would paper over the deep differences that have plagued the Copenhagen summit from the start: what targets to set, how to include both developed and developing countries within the same framework, and what financing would be available for international programs to help poorer nations contend with climate change.

Obama played it simple and hard. He maintained the United States was calling for three basic principles: mitigation, transparency, and financing. But he noted that it was absolutely necessary to verify the reductions commitments of the major emitters. (China is now Major Emitter Number One.) "Without such accountability, any agreement would be empty words on a page," Obama argued. And an international pact without such mechanisms, he remarked, "would be a hollow victory." He reminded the conference that the U.S. pledge to contribute to a $100 billion international fund by 2020 was predicated on the establishment of a "broader accord" that contained effective reviews and covered all nations' reductions commitments. 

Presented by

David Corn is the Washington bureau chief for Mother Jones.

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