Road to Copenhagen: No Senate Bill Before Copenhagen, What's Next?


photo: Perrimoon on flickr

Well that's settled. There won't be a Senate bill before Copenhagen. Which means a lot of things: the US won't have concrete numbers on mitigation targets and finance commitments before COP15 convenes; the difficult job of the American negotiators just got even harder; the international community has even more cause to accuse the US of coming up short; the chances of a fair, ambitious and binding deal coming out of Copenhagen have taken a serious blow; and finally, any hope for the talks to succeed depends on a dramatic shift in how the State Department approaches the negotiations.A new (and very controversial) way forward?

Up until now, the thinking was that the best course towards any sort of deal in Copenhagen was through a good bill passing on Capitol Hill.

Now this changes-we know that a Senate bill isn't coming. The conventional wisdom has long held that the US needs to bring numbers from our domestic policies to the UNFCCC, and not vice versa. Doing so, we're often warned, would be a recipe for disaster, as it was with Kyoto when the Senate wouldn't even consider ratifying the treaty that was widely interpreted as being restrictions forced on the US from abroad. Lead negotiator Jonathan Pershing has long maintained that he intends to bring home a treaty that will absolutely be signed and ratified. The State Department hasn't wanted to write a check that our domestic politics can't cash.

So now what? It would seem that a major shift in the US approach is necessary if there's any hope for a deal in December. Such a shift would involve the Administration committing to a target-or at least to a range-before things shake out in the Upper Chamber. Stepping in front of Congress would be an incredibly bold-and amazingly controversial-move with serious potential to backfire. As Kevin Grandia wrote, "historically there's only one thing Congress dislikes more than science and that's international treaties," and moderate Senators certainly wouldn't take such a brazen move well.

The only option left?

But what if this is the only possible course to a successful outcome in Copenhagen? Should the State Department, with the best interests of the American economy and national security in mind, be handcuffed by a dozen senators from coal states?

Consider then the potential "nuclear option" of Obama making bold commitments ahead of Congress. There is a legitimate chance that all the convention wisdom is wrong, and that Kyoto's failure was as much a sign of the times as it was a political miscalculation. Climate science is certainly more advanced than it was ten years ago, now essentially bulletproof. The American public is better informed (though still woefully climate illiterate compared to just about anywhere else in the world.) Is it really entirely out of the question for the State Department to now do what every other nation is doing and bring international commitments home? It's not so hard to envision a massive domestic outreach campaign following Copenhagen to show the American public-and their senators-that ratifying this treaty isn't at all an option, but a necessity for the good of the nation.

Over the next three months, I'll be tracking the American positions in the international climate treaty negotiations for the Adopt-A-Negotiator project. Together, we're tracking the negotiators from twelve key countries up to and through the December COP15 meetings in Copenhagen.