Climate change: Time for the U.S. to Dust Off that Leadership Role

150_COP15_LOGO_B_MThe United Nations climate change conference in Copenhagen (COP 15) will be a turning point in the fight to prevent climate disaster. – Yvo de Boer, UNFCCC Executive Secretary

As I pack plenty of warm clothes for Copenhagen, I think of the long winding road that my colleagues and I have been on as we followed the negotiations over this past year, from Bonn to Bangkok to Barcelona. The thought that is most in my mind (besides the obvious question of why we are not meeting in Ballerup, Denmark to keep the whole “B” theme going) is if Copenhagen is indeed to be a turning point, what will this turning point look like?

Originally Copenhagen was to be where the final international agreement was completed. Now most who follow these negotiations expect that by the end of the two week negotiations (December 7 to 18), a political agreement, rather than a legally binding agreement, will emerge. This political agreement will most likely settle key issues and form the basis of the final legally binding agreement to be completed in 2010.

So what does this mean? Why does Yvo de Boer, the person who is in charge of shepherding 192 countries towards an international climate change agreement, still believe Copenhagen to be a turning point?

After a year of halting progress, I believe that Copenhagen is the beginning of the negotiations in earnest. Approximately 90 countries, including the United States, will be sending their heads of state to Copenhagen, indicating their commitment to the negotiation process and to action.

The big questions

The negotiations are complex and there are many issues and nuances that will take many long hours of careful discussion and compromise to reach a successful conclusion. However, the two biggest questions that have emerged over the past year and will need to be answered in Copenhagen are:

300_frans_lanting(1) How deeply will countries reduce their emissions and when (i.e., targets), and

(2) How will developed countries help developing countries reduce their emissions and adapt to the changes already occurring due to climate change (i.e., finance). Overlaying both of these questions is: what will the United States do in Copenhagen?

President Obama’s attendance at Copenhagen illustrates that the U.S. is committed to the international negotiations, but also that the President is committed to working with Congress to pass a U.S. climate bill, which serves as the basis for anything that the U.S. puts on the table at Copenhagen. But showing up is not enough!

Dusting off that leadership role

The U.S. will have to dust off that leadership role that has been hanging in the closet for the past eight years. With regard to the two central questions of the conference, President Obama has already indicated he intends to put emission targets on the table in Copenhagen. Although many members of Congress object to the President’s proposed number (17 percent reduction in total U.S. emissions by 2020 as compared to 2005) and the international community may not think this number is ambitious enough, it is a number that forms the basis for negotiation.

One question down, one to go.

Fortunately, addressing the issue of finance is something that both the President and Congress seem to agree upon. The U.S. climate bill being discussed in the U.S. Senate proposes to provide financial resources to reduce tropical deforestation and help those communities most affected by climate change to adapt. Both of these issues (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, or REDD+, and adaptation) have wide support in the international negotiations. This is where the U.S. can and should lead. Leading not only by strongly supporting these two critically important needs but by pushing for financial assistance to begin now, before an eventual agreement becomes reality.

The negotiations have ambled along while everyone tried to avoid the lack of commitment by the biggest party in the room. Now the U.S. has a chance to step up, lead and take these negotiations to the next level. I will be one of a small army of observers in Copenhagen watching. So as I pack all of my sweaters for the cold of northern Europe in December (not that hard since I only own two sweaters), I’m optimistic that this is truly a turning point, that this is where the U.S. and all of us take a big step forward.

Manuel Oliva is Director of U.S. Climate Policy at Conservation International (CI).

Many CI delegates from all over the world will be attending the COP15 Climate Change conference in Copenhagen. See who’s going and read about CI’s agenda and climate policy positions on our COP15 page.


  1. Paula Kahumbu says

    Greetings Manuel, I can’t help but feel deeply despondent about the ‘discussions” that will take place in Copenhagen. Kenhya is feeling the full brunt of climate change with everyone experiencing the impact of the drought – from hundreds of thousands of pastoralists, farmers, to businesses that depend on electricity, and of course to those of us in conservation. This drought has rolled back conservation progress by about 15 years, the parks are full of cattle and desperate farmers have become poachers, its become a game of survival. To most of us it feels like the Kenya Wildlife Service is turning a blind eye, but scientists are insisting that the signs are terrible. Wildlife numbers are plumetting across the country. I live a frugal life in Nairobi and I worked out my own carbon footprint which was shocking. At 11 tons, it is as fat as the footprint of the average American. So I tested the footprint of a poor person living in rural Kenya – her footprint is 1.4 tons. That’s only .6 tons short of the global target of 2 tons per capita that is required for us to stop the earth from warming up dangerously. Yet Kenya wants is to be an industrial nation by 2030 – few people in Kenya even know what carbon emissions and climate change have to do with each other. To them cutting trees = drought and so we are encouraged to save trees and use fossil fuels for domestic use. Copenhagen feels very much like bailing out a sinking ship with teaspoons – and there aren’t enough teaspoons. I dont think that US leadership will make a jot of a difference, Americans cannot and will not reduce their footprint from 11 tons to 2 tons (it literally means living as poor as the average Kenyan). So my question is this. What are you going to say to developing nations that aspire to alleviate poverty. The G77 are being led by Sudan – whose president will not even be there. How does Sudan defend teh interests of countries like Kenya suffering from drought, and the right for development in China, India and Brazil – soon to be the most polluting countries on the planet? It is the developing nations that will drive future climate change not America. From where we sit, America does not even have the moral authority to lead on this issue.

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