The Impact of Copenhagen on U.S. Climate Policy

Editor’s Note: This is a series of analysis and observations from the ground in Copenhagen. During the 15th annual climate change conference, Brookings expert Nathan Hultman tracks the negotiations, offering insight into the governance process.

Only two days now remain for negotiators at Copenhagen to conclude what was hoped to be a defining treaty on climate change. Some progress is being made— for example on policies to protect forests and provisions for funding adaptation in the poorest countries. Hillary Clinton, for example, has just announced support for a $100 billion fund, one of the key sticking points of the discussions thus far. But, as the high-level segment begins, there is a palpable sense of trepidation now, rooted in the realization that some of the most contentious issues seem to be far from resolution. It is possible that the arrival of scores of heads of state, including President Obama, will be able to focus minds and unlock the discussions. Yet after brief periods of heightened hopes, there is now open acknowledgement that the Copenhagen meeting may fail. The possibility of such a failure raises questions about the implications for U.S. climate and energy policy, and in particular what it would portend for the cap-and-trade legislation working its way through Congress.

It might seem that the existence of a treaty would be of relatively little importance to Congress, or perhaps even a complication. After all, legislators are primarily concerned about their domestic constituents, some of whom are skeptical of international engagement. One need only look back to the experience of the Kyoto Protocol, which, according to Washington conventional wisdom, was approached exactly backwards: rather than build domestic consensus to bring to Kyoto, it is argued that the Clinton administration made a commitment at Kyoto that they then sought, unsuccessfully, to foist upon a skeptical congress and public. It is because of this perspective that most observers argued that the United States would never be able to commit to an emissions reduction goal at Copenhagen without legislation passed and signed into law.

Confounding such assertions, President Obama did in fact announce his openness to such a target just a few days before the Copenhagen conference began. The reason why he did this underscores the much more complex interlinkage between international negotiations and U.S. domestic legislation than is commonly assumed. It is certainly the case that by entering into an agreement at Copenhagen, the United States would be committing to domestic action. But what is equally true is that U.S. commitments at Copenhagen would only come with participation by those key emitters most salient in the discussion about equitable burden sharing: China and India. As such, while the U.S. obligation does matter, what may matter more in the Congressional debate is the extent to which China, India, and other key emitters have also committed to reductions that can be monitored and verified in a satisfactory way.

For this reason, agreement on Copenhagen continues to be seen by many congressional representatives as potentially very helpful—even necessary—for the domestic debate on the several climate bills in the House and Senate. A failure of the treaty would, by extension, greatly increase the challenges: without commitments by China and India, we could be back to the same discussion dynamic that prevailed under Kyoto. Nevertheless, while a positive outcome from Copenhagen would be helpful, and would be valuable to the world for other reasons, a Copenhagen failure would not spell certain doom for domestic climate legislation. Other negotiating forums exist—both multilateral and bilateral—and concrete emissions agreements between the United States and India, and the United States and China, could possibly provide enough evidence of commitment for the Congressional debate. Nevertheless, negotiators can continue to hope for a better outcome in the next 36 hours.

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