WHY OBAMA IS GOING TO COPENHAGEN*
Lowered ExpectationsNow that the Copenhagen talks look likely to fail, it is safe for President Obama to go.
By Daniel Stone | Newsweek Web Exclusive
Nov 25, 2009
upcoming Copenhagen climate-change summit has been on the minds of
environmentalists for more than a year; not since Kyoto in 1997 have
climate discussions garnered as much international attention. And this
time, with growing knowledge of the effects of climate change, the
stakes are higher. The internationally respected economist and
climate-change researcher Nicholas Stern labeled Copenhagen "the most
important meeting since the Second World War." Ironically, it is only
now, when the meeting looks doomed to failure, that President Obama has
announced his intention to go. Why? Because low expectations make for
At first it seemed logical that Obama
would attend. His campaign platform included both a commitment to
addressing climate change and a stated desire to cooperate
internationally on important global issues. But after several publicly
embarrassing episodes, the political calculus seemed to change. Obama's
international focus was questioned when he was photographed looking
chummy with Hugo Chávez in Trinidad, and after rumors of a cooling
relationship between Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Not
long after that, Obama came home empty-handed in his push to help
Chicago win the 2016 Olympic Games, his international star power
Late in October, several news outlets (including NEWSWEEK)
reported that Obama wouldn't attend the conference. He would be
accepting the Nobel Prize in Oslo, "which is plenty close," according
to an unnamed official. The idea was that Obama could outline U.S.
goals from there. The implication, of course, was that he didn't want
to get too close. If he actually went and no treaty was produced, the
failure could be pinned on the global superstar who once again couldn't
close the deal. It would be like a repeat of the Olympics—an episode
that, no matter how well spun, would paint Obama as a political
lightweight and allow conservatives to argue that his global popularity
and conciliatory rhetoric don't actually deliver the goods for U.S.
interests. To mute any criticism that he was averse to risky
situations, Obama declared he would go to the summit only if the U.S.
were "on the brink of a meaningful agreement and my presence in
Copenhagen will make a difference in tipping us over the edge."
Translation: "I will go only if we can win; I don't want to be
From then on, Copenhagen's
prospects headed toward doom. U.S. negotiators lamented how difficult
it would be to bring developing countries, especially major polluters
China and India, on board. And there was an obstacle on the domestic
front too—the stalled climate bill in the Senate made it clear that the
U.S. wouldn't codify its own long-term cuts, or even identify what they
were, before Copenhagen. It didn't really matter. By mid-November, the
prospect of a treaty was like a candle being starved of oxygen, the
flame nearly gone. The new best hope for progress in Copenhagen was a
proposal floated by Danish Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen that
would outline benchmarks for cuts but wouldn't include any legally
binding mandates. It could be seen as an abandonment of the talks'
initial purpose (drafting a hard-hitting legal agreement), perhaps, but
when viewed from the right angle, it was a way to salvage some good out of what would otherwise be a crash-and-burn failure.
then word leaked from the White House that Obama would indeed be going,
news that was later officially confirmed. What changed? The downplaying
of expectations worked to Obama's advantage—if the negotiations were
already essentially stalemated, he couldn't be blamed for any failure.
In fact, he could reasonably hope to achieve some progress and could
claim that anything that came out of Copenhagen would be better than
nothing, and could take credit for it. That said, it's still something
of a political risk. "This has always been about the bill in the
Senate," says David Roberts, a senior writer for Grist.
"The bill could still fail in the Senate. So this is Obama getting a
little out ahead. But he hasn't, and won't, get way out ahead. If he's
willing to go [to Copenhagen], that means there's good reason for
confidence in the Senate process." In other words, Obama going out on a
limb to propose international targets before Congress has managed to
pass domestic ones would increase pressure on the Senate to get to
work, and quickly.
For its part, the White House says
the president's last-minute choice was made after thoughtful and
productive discussions with Chinese and Indian leaders (he hosted
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at a state dinner Tuesday night).
Speaking before reporters Wednesday morning, Carol Browner, who directs
the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy, rattled off
a list of numbers that the U.S. would submit as its proposed cuts.
Whether Obama actually would be involved in bilateral or multilateral
negotiations at Copenhagen is as yet unclear.
what remains most peculiar about his choice is the reaction of
environmentalists. For months, advocacy groups lobbied heavily to urge
Obama to breathe life into the negotiations. Now that he's going,
they're not as elated as one would expect. "The president needs to do
more than just show up," says Friends of the Earth president Erich
Pica. "He must ensure that the United States promotes real solutions,
including stronger emissions-reduction targets and funding for
developing countries to deal with climate impacts and transition to
clean-energy economies." Even a Democratic president must sometimes be
exhausted by the way environmental groups keep raising the bar he must
clear. Let the speechwriting begin. 2009
*NOTE: This is the world according to Newsweek