After the Olympic-sized disappointment of his last trip to Copenhagen, why on earth would President Obama want to travel once again to the Danish capital for next month’s UN climate talks?
The answer, according to White House officials, lies in several weeks of intensive behind-the-scenes diplomacy that the press corps entirely overlooked during Obama’s recent trip to China, and during the recent state visit by India’s prime minister.
"Obama is at the point where he feels on the verge of a breakthrough, based on the kind of talks that don’t get covered by reporters obsessing about state dinners."
Beyond the photo ops and press statements, Obama was pushing President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for the kind of climate deals that eluded him at the G8 summit in Italy in the summer – and have eluded international negotiators for the last decade. China and India have played central roles in blocking past agreements, alongside the US, in a seemingly intractable dispute between fast-developing economies and the older, wealthier polluters.
Now Obama is at the point where he feels on the verge of a breakthrough, based on the kind of talks that don’t get covered by reporters obsessing about state dinners. “He had extensive conversations with President Hu specifically on climate and conversations with the prime minister of India,” said one senior White House aide. “So he has been building momentum for a political agreement to be brokered at Copenhagen.”
That was the backdrop for Wednesday’s White House announcement of specific targets to reduce emissions “in the range of 17% below 2005 levels in 2020.” The next day, on Thanksgiving, China announced its own bargaining position to slow the growth of carbon emissions by 2020. Using a different standard from the US – measuring carbon intensity (relative to its own economic growth), China is offering a 40 to 45% cut below 2005 levels.
Environmental groups have criticized both the American and Chinese targets as too low. But the criticism was much sharper when it looked like President Obama might not attend Copenhagen. Now the White House says Obama believes he can be a decisive factor in turning the talks into a success. “He feels he can be a catalyst for getting a political agreement in place,” says one senior aide.
Obama’s decision to attend Copenhagen only crystallized over the last two weeks as the Chinese and Indian talks progressed, out of public view. However Obama will not stay for the conclusion of the week-long talks, and he arrives at the start of the conference before traveling on to Oslo, Norway, to accept his Nobel peace prize the following day. Instead, he will leave behind several White House and Cabinet officials, including Energy Secretary Steven Chu, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and White House climate change czar Carol Browner.
By leaving early, Obama has drawn some European criticism since he will not be present for the later-stage arm-twisting that could be decisive in reaching an international agreement. Yet that scheduling decision also avoids any potential embarrassment in case Copenhagen ends up with no agreement whatsoever – a possible repeat of the Olympics fiasco. Speculation has already surfaced that the President might jet back to Copenhagen if a deal is within reach a week later. “Let’s hope there’s good karma in Copenhagen this time,” says one White House official.
The main difference between the Olympic trip and the climate talks: The White House has been doing its own prep work instead of relying on others. Obama’s personal investment in climate talks – from the G8 to his recent Asian travel – appears to have delivered some concrete, if modest, agreements. His prep has also delivered other benefits, including this week’s support from China for a strongly-worded, but limited, statement condemning Iran’s nuclear program at the IAEA. Both were overlooked during the Asia trip that was widely criticized for its lack of so-called deliverables.
However the climate negotiators may be more interested to hear about the kind of prep work the President has engaged in back home with his own Congress. Without a clear promise of binding US legislation, the Copenhagen talks may struggle to move ahead amid skepticism about America’s commitment to slowing climate change.
This week the White House was eager to point out that the President’s Copenhagen targets were in line with legislation currently before Congress. It also quoted favorably from a range of unlikely supporters, including Senator Joe Lieberman and several energy company CEOs, such as Jim Rogers of Duke Energy and Lew Hay of Florida Power & Light.
Whether those statements will satisfy the international negotiators, or add to any momentum inside Congress, is unclear. At least Obama will return from Europe with something golden and tangible in his hands: the medal dedicated to his Nobel prize.
Richard Wolffe is Daily Beast columnist and an award-winning journalist, and senior strategist at Public Strategies. He covered the entire length of Barack Obama's presidential campaign for Newsweek magazine. His book, Renegade: The Making of a President, was published by Crown in June.