Sneaking a Peek at the Climate Summit Playbook

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Today, nearly a hundred world leaders are meeting in New York for the U.N. Climate Change Summit. Impressive though this gathering may seem--especially when placed in the fabulous PR context of Climate Week NYC, an events line-up featuring everyone from Ban Ki-Moon to Harrison Ford--it is a mere glimpse of what this December's U.N. Climate Conference in Copenhagen holds. Attendees of this conference will be charged with the grand task of hammering out a follow-up to the Kyoto Protocol, a set of binding greenhouse gas reduction targets that took force in 2005 and has been ratified by 184 countries--though conspicuously not by the U.S. or China. Riding the wake of a global economic crisis and the escalating urgency of climate change, the Copenhagen conference promises to be a high-wire act of shifting power currents and geopolitical tensions. Today's summit is, then, an opportunity for key players to feel out their competitors and lay the groundwork for effective negotiation come December.

So, what to expect from the usual suspects? President Hu Jintao will address the summit, a speech that, regardless of its content, signals that China is putting climate change on its agenda--a welcome change from its reluctance to negotiate over the past ten years. After an interview with a top Chinese official, Reuters predicts that Hu will continue to balk at emissions caps but may announce a "carbon intensity target," a scheme that's been criticized as a handy method of maintaining the status quo. But China needs something up its sleeve if it wants its demands taken seriously in Copenhagen.

India, however, may not even bother to make China's expected perfunctory effort. Representing the country in a speech to the summit will be not Prime Minister Manmohan Singh but a 13-year-old environmental activist and newly minted Indian wunderkind from Lucknow. This under-showing may be explained by the internal criticism the Indian government faced last summer after committing to an international goal of preventing a global temperature rise of over 2 degrees Fahrenheit.

On the more ambitious end of the spectrum, Japan has already announced a greenhouse gas reduction target of 25 percent by 2020 (including carbon offsets). The government scrambled to name this goal after last year's record spike in Japanese emissions, but Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama has also openly acknowledged his hope that it gives Japan a stronger base from which to negotiate in Copenhagen.

And speaking of gaining strategic ground, everyone is wondering what tack Obama will take in his speech to the summit's attendees. Environmental advocates have been hoping that he will return to campaign promises that have recently been upstaged by the all-consuming health care debate. But it is unlikely that Obama will call upon Congress to push climate legislation through the Senate before December--a goal that Harry Reid recently suggested might have to wait until next year. So how can the U.S. pressure China, India, and other developing oil-guzzlers to cut emissions when we can't even cobble together laws to deal with ours? Well, EPA might have to fill the regulation gap, a prospect that worries many observers, including the Washington Post editorial board. It's also possible we've given up on meeting the Copenhagen deadline, as Energy Secretary Steven Chu suggested last week when he cautioned against making "that one particular time the be-all, end-all, and say if it doesn't happen that we're doomed."

As Obama and his administration have learned from the trials of health care legislation, the slow and steady route may sometimes be preferable to the mass carnage that can result from rushing the legislative process. It's just too bad climate change isn't working at a slow and steady pace.

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Nicole Allan is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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