After weeks of rumor, the White House announced on Wednesday that President Barack Obama would indeed attend the U.N. climate change summit in Copenhagen next month, joining more than 60 other world leaders who plan to take part in the talks.
Obama will bring to Copenhagen a relatively firm pledge to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in the range of 17% below 2005 levels by 2020. That's good news for advocates of action on climate change, who have recently been dealt a series of blows. Less than two weeks ago, world leaders at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Singapore agreed not to come to a legally binding deal, and seemed all but ready to pull the plug on the Copenhagen talks. Then, on Nov. 20, scientists discovered that unknown hackers had broken into the computers of researchers at the University of East Anglia's Climate Research Unit, releasing e-mails from dozens of prominent climate scientists over the past 13 years. Taken out of context, the stolen e-mails made it seem as though some scientists might be hiding climate data in an effort to outflank skeptics.
Although nothing in those e-mails cast doubt on the scientific consensus that global warming is real, man-made and dangerous, the controversy ignited the growing ranks of climate skeptics (the proportion of Americans who say they believe in global warming has fallen from 80% to 72%, according to the latest Washington PostABC News poll). Obama's decision on Wednesday to attend the Copenhagen summit signals that he is not among the skeptics, and further that the chance of a global climate treaty is alive and well. "It's been a bit of a roller coaster," says Keya Chatterjee, the U.S. director of climate change at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). "But now we're clearly back on track."
Obama plans to visit Copenhagen on Dec. 9, two days after the 12-day summit begins, en route to the Norwegian capital of Oslo, where he'll be accepting his Nobel Peace Prize on Dec. 10. He'll be followed by a number of his top Cabinet officials, including Energy Secretary Steven Chu and climate czar Carol Browner. "We believe this is a very important step," said Browner.
Although Obama's presence in Copenhagen will show that the U.S. is serious about climate change, his early arrival at the summit may limit his effectiveness veterans of the U.N. climate process know that the real negotiations don't take place until the tail end of the talks. Unless Obama returns for the end of the conference and environmentalists hope he will he won't be around to influence the contentious give-and-take that could make the difference between a successful summit and another punt. "The timing isn't ideal," admits Chatterjee. "But it still gives him a chance to make it clear that climate change is a major legislative priority for him."
That's the kind of political promise other nations will be looking for. After eight years of inaction by former President George W. Bush, and the earlier repudiation of the Kyoto Protocol by Congress, there remains a lot of skepticism toward the U.S. The election of Obama, a true believer in the need to address climate change, made a difference, but smart foreign observers know that the U.S. Senate will still be the final word on a climate treaty. Though the carbon cap-and-trade bill remains up for debate in the Senate, and likely won't be acted on until next spring, the fact that the White House says it will bring emission targets to Copenhagen shows that it is confident that Congress will ultimately fall in line. "They're not going to do what they did at Kyoto and throw out [emissions targets] and not have Congress backing them," says Jake Schmidt, the international climate policy director at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Of course, there's still a long way to go before Copenhagen can be considered a success. The proposed U.S. emission cuts are well below what the European Union is promising, with cuts of at least 20% below 1990 levels by 2020, and even further below the major cuts demanded by many poorer developing countries. Closing that gap won't be easy. And while Obama managed to secure climate cooperation with China and India during his recent meetings with them, those two countries will remain key to any meaningful deal. But that's for Copenhagen and beyond. "We have never had a U.S. leader go to an international climate summit and say that we'll take action on this important challenge," says Schmidt. We do now. On the day before Thanksgiving, environmentalists finally have something to be thankful for.