Climate change: Will the U.S. be a leader or a laggard at Copenhagen conference?

The U.S. has an appointment with history. The upcoming United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, slated for December, represents an opportunity for the U.S. to urge the world into taking serious action on climate change -- and reclaim America's leadership role in world affairs, a role that has taken a beating of late. Or the U.S. could retreat from that leadership opportunity, sink back into bickering over short-term domestic disputes, and continue what seems to be an ever-increasing slide into paper-tiger status.

That's the worry of former Irish prime minister John Bruton, now the European Union's ambassador to the U.S. Calling for action on New York radio station WNYC last week, Bruton called America's overconsumption of fossil fuels and dependence on unfriendly countries a national security issue. His remarks echoed those of Energy Secretary Steve Chu, who, when he was director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, urged the U.S. to take the long view on climate change and to take action:

Last week Bruton praised new U.S. efforts on climate and energy policy, noting that making serious changes before the summit in Copenhagen would give the U.S. great leverage to negotiate: "If the U.S. is moving on this issue, then it's in a position to say to China and the other carbon dioxide–emitting countries, 'Look, we're acting. Now you have to act, too.'"

Bruton cited the Senate's climate and energy bill, introduced last week by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Sen. John Kerry (D.-Mass.), which is more ambitious than the beleaguered Waxman-Markey bill that passed the House this summer and which, as many critics have observed, proposes loopholes for polluters and weak carbon-dioxide target limits that will be reached anyway, even without the legislation.

The Senate's more ambitious measure, to cut carbon-dioxide emissions to 20 percent below 2005 levels, coincided last week with the Environmental Protection Agency's announcement of stiff regulatory penalties for big greenhouse-gas polluters. The two announcements -- an awakening jab from Sen. Boxer, with a threat of a right hook from the EPA -- seemed coordinated to bolster the Obama administration's aim of curing opposition to climate legislation and to spur Congress to enact meaningful carbon-dioxide reductions before the Copenhagen summit.

But all of that changed as the week came to an end. On Friday, the Obama administration seemed to throw in the towel: Remarks by Carol Browner, director of the White House Office of Climate Change Policy, suggested that the U.S. will arrive empty-handed at the historic talks in Copenhagen -- not merely as a follower but a laggard. The U.S. currently emits a quarter of all greenhouse gases: more carbon per person every year -- about 20 metric tons -- than any other country, according to the Energy Information Administration's Emissions Per Capita data). China emits between a quarter and a third of that amount, according to the EIA, and India about one-tenth.

In September, French Prime Minister Nicholas Sarkozy went into full-on scolding mode, indirectly addressing China and the U.S. by saying it was tie for polluting nations to "transcend the role playing, the empty speeches, the petty diplomatic games and to table concrete proposals." And Bruton, responding to the U.S.'s foot-dragging, sounded like a teacher reacting to a dog-ate-my-homework excuse. "The deadlines have been well known," he said. "It's been known for years that Copenhagen was the deadline for making a decision to replace the existing arrangement, which is the Kyoto Treaty."

Some observers hold out hope that the U.S. may get its act together. "Last week I spoke with some of the people in Washington and New York who work the hardest to press this through Congress. I know that senators and other people in the political spectrum are doing a tremendous effort," said Connie Hedegaard, Denmark's minister for climate and energy. And Bruton tried to keep positive: "I would like the U.S. Senate, which has a democratic majority, and the House, which also commands a democratic majority, to give a democratic president the option of going to Copenhagen because he knows that if he does, he has good news to bring."

So has the Obama administration given up on its historic opportunity, conceding that it can't manage crucial legislation on both health care and climate change simultaneously? "If the United States wants a leading role in the 21st century," Hedegaard said, "then there is an expectation that they, one way or the other, join in here." But without meaningful climate change legislation to back it up, the U.S. can only serve up more "empty speeches" in Copenhagen.

Mark Svenvold, author of Big Weather: Chasing Tornadoes in the Heart of America, teaches at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey.
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