|It’s been a bad few weeks for the Obama administration when it comes to climate change, as the White House has found itself trapped between a stalled Senate and constant hammering from world leaders on a lack of leadership on global warming.
On Monday, the administration hit back.
“It would be a mistake to conclude that the international community’s failure to reach a final treaty in Copenhagen is due to a lack of domestic legislation in the United States,” said a senior White House official, who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity.
The United States, said officials, plans to propose a near-term emissions reduction target as part of a “meaningful submission” the country will present at the talks.
Just what that meaningful submission will be remains unclear. But the White House on Monday was clearly reaching out trying to change the negative narrative on the climate debate, making senior administration officials available to insist the U.S. will head to the climate change conference in Copenhagen next month with a real plan.
Until now, the United States has resisted setting a specific goal for greenhouse gas reduction, arguing that the international negotiators cannot preempt Congress. And expectations for the talks have fallen over the past few months, a change some blame on the inability of Congress to commit to a concrete target.
“That strategy is untenable,” Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, on an EU website, wrote of the failure of the United States and China to deliver specific targets. “It provides no global answer. It does not solve the threat of climate change.”
But administration officials said that the White House heads into the talks with confidence.
“I think we go into Copenhagen with a very, very strong hand,” said one of the officials. “We have done I think more than anyone could have expected us to do in a short time.”
The targets, said Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Ed Markey, will demonstrate U.S. leadership on the climate issue and encourage other nations to make firm commitments.
“The Obama administration will be able to say to the world we are no longer going to preach temperance from a bar stool. We are now ready to begin to make a commitment,” he told POLITICO.
Administration officials rattled off a long list of achievements, like new fuel economy standards, a House cap and trade bill, and a joint statement on climate change issued by the United States and China last week.
But White House officials also acknowledged that the international negotiators would have a stronger position had Congress already passed a climate bill.
“We would have preferred that health care be done a long time ago, and we’d be having an energy debate today,” the official said.
The goals presented at Copenhagen, said officials, will “take cognizance” of Capitol Hill proposals.
The House passed legislation that would cut greenhouse gases 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. A Senate bill that passed the Environmental and Public Works committee last month called for a 20 percent target, but that version of the bill is expected to be significantly changed by other committees.
U.S. negotiators are holding out hope that a bipartisan effort by Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) will give them some momentum heading into the climate talks. The trio of senators is expected to release a framework laying out broad principles of their bipartisan proposal before the conference.
Aides and experts suggested that the White House could introduce a provisional target that would be subject to congressional approval.
But environmental advocates say the targets alone will not be enough to get a deal without presidential assurances that the legislation will eventually become law.
International negotiations learned the power of Congress after lawmakers failed to ratify the 1997 Kyoto climate treaty — an international climate treaty to limit greenhouse gas emissions that had been negotiated but not finalized.
“They’re looking for that assurance from the president himself that this is going to get done,” said Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Administration officials said Obama would decide over the next few days whether he would travel to the conference. More than 60 world leaders plan to appear at the conference. Obama will be in the region during the talks to receive his Nobel peace prices in Oslo on Dec. 10.
“Why should they negotiate with us when it’s not really clear that this is a huge priority and we are going to put all our political might into making sure we ratify the treaty,” said Keya Chatterjee, director of the United States Climate Change Program at the World Wildlife Fund. “It’s really really dependent on whether they have the confidence on whether there will be some political support on ratifying the treaty.”