Obama Makes the Case for Attending Copenhagen

Barack Obama's concession on Sunday that the upcoming Copenhagen meeting on climate change will not result in a comprehensive climate deal is little more than an official acknowledgment of what everyone already suspected. Simply put, there's no time. The combination of the economic crisis, which sucked up an enormous amount of time at previous multilateral meetings and the exceedingly slow pace with which the U.S. Congress has moved to address health care made it, in practice, impossible to imagine an agreement emerging. Indeed, though the downgrading of Copenhagen makes for a bad headline, it counts as good news.

This is born out by the fact that neither environmental groups nor the Danish government is upset. Indeed, they'd been trying to accomplish precisely this lowering of expectations for a couple of months. The Danes would like, in essence, to host a conference that counts as a success. And greens recognize that high expectations would be counterproductive. The risk was that a "failed conference" would set off a downward spiral that derailed efforts to halt climate catastrophe. In the United States, the collapse of talks aimed at an international agreement would be yet another excuse for risk-averse senators to avoid voting for a tough climate bill. In the developing world, U.S. inaction would become another reason to avoid emissions reductions. Lather, rinse, repeat, and the next thing you know, the planet is boiling.

By lowering expectations, the hope is to instead have a "successful" meeting that will set the stage for an international agreement that puts the developing world on a path toward sustainability. As my colleague Joe Romm put it, "The new plan for Copenhagen makes the prospects for a successful international deal far more likely -- and at the same time increases the chance for Senate passage of the bipartisan climate and clean energy bill" that John Kerry and Lindsey Graham are working on.

One subtext to this is that the global recession set off by last fall's financial collapse has had a benign impact in ecological terms. The decline in output associated with the recession has slowed emissions growth in China and led to emission cuts in the developed world. Environmentalists, for good reasons, don't like to highlight the relationship between recession and emissions reductions out of fear it will bolster anti-environmentalist arguments that clean-energy legislation would be an economy-destroying job killer. Nevertheless, while falling industrial output need not be a consequence of emissions reductions, it certainly helps cause them. Meanwhile, the need for fiscal stimulus in many countries has provided an opportunity to fund green investments.

That's not to deny the need for urgent action on the climate front but merely to observe that we haven't reached the point where a desperate gamble makes more sense than a calm effort to keep the momentum going. By contrast, it really is desperate-gamble time for the U.K. Labour Party, which is on the verge of a catastrophic election, so it's no surprise that Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Ed Milliband seem to be the only people really aggressively criticizing the decision. Brown is hoping for a miracle to rescue his political position, and he hoped attending Copenhagen and delivering a climate deal could be it.

For Obama, who has at least three more years in office no matter what happens and who's been reluctant to commit to attending the meeting, the lowering of expectations solidifies the case that he should go. For one thing, he will be in Europe during the course of the meeting in order to pick up his Nobel. For another thing, the prospect of attending only to participate in a failure is now off the table. Attendance will signal to the rest of the world that the United States is taking the issue seriously and that his administration is committed to seeing a bill pass the senate.

The fact of the matter is that the United States has, historically, been by far the largest contributor to the climate problem. In addition, we're the predominant geopolitical power of our time. We can't solve this problem alone, but it can't be solved without us. We have an obligation to lead: Failure to do so will have devastating direct environmental consequences and a catastrophic long-term impact on our standing in the world.

The idea that the destabilizing consequences of climate change are a kind of national-security threat is making some headway in Washington. The more compelling point is that America can ill-afford ecological devastation as the main legacy of our "unipolar moment." The very fact that the do-nothing lobby is so strong in the United States tends to obscure from Americans' eyes how weak it is in the rest of the world and how bizarre our inaction looks from abroad. It's not entirely clear how to make this point to recalcitrant senators, but Obama showing up at the summit would be a good first step.

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