Challenge in Copenhagen

Even with a wide international consensus, does any agreement stand a chance of ratification by the U.S. Senate?

Opinion | Romolo Gandolfo | December 2009 / January 2010

On the eve of the Conference on Climate Change in Copenhagen, a new global agreement on how to curb carbon emissions and limit global warming to no more than two degrees Celsius by 2050 remain huge.

Many complex issues are on the negotiating table, and no agreement is yet in sight. Poor countries most threatened by climate change claim generous financial compensation from the rich countries responsible for global warming, while the rich countries cannot agree on common emission-reduction targets. On top of this, the rich countries have no idea where to find the billions that will be needed every year just for the essentials: to help not only the poorest nations cope with the catastrophic consequences of climate change, but also the largest emerging economies (China, India and Brazil) to immediately adopt the expensive technologies required to curb their own fast increasing carbon emissions.

As the latest round of climate negotiations in Bangkok failed to produce progress, China has accused the developed countries of trying to "kill" the existing climate protection agreement, the Kyoto Protocol of 1997. The EU and Japan reject this charge, and declare their continued commitment.

But a fundamental, if rarely openly asked, question looms large: Can a binding agreement be signed in Copenhagen that will stand a good chance of being ratified by the U.S. Senate?

The United States’ failure to ratify the Kyoto Protocol has seriously undermined the global effort to combat climate change. This time around, many believe, it will be different. George W. Bush is gone, and President Barack Obama is fully committed to making the environment a priority. Never before have so many scientists and committed environmentalists held top positions within the U.S. administration.

But will this be enough? Can President Obama risk signing on to an agreement in Copenhagen that will be rejected at home?

Speaking in Copenhagen in early October at a top-level climate conference of 400 newspaper editors from 150 countries organized by the Prague-based Project Syndicate, Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs was as outspoken as usual.

"The ball – he said – is back in the U.S. Senate. And the U.S. is currently in a strange mood, with the public asking: Why should America carry most of the burden? What have China and India done to help us lately?" Sachs asked. "In the end, the votes of 25 coal-producing states will hold the balance in the American Senate. These states represent a small minority of the total U.S. population, but can be a real stumbling block. President Obama can count on only 45 sure votes on environmental issues. But he will need 60 to get any new treaty ratified."

Which way to go, then? Later at the conference, India’s Minister for Environment and Forestry Jairam Ramesh accused the European Union of being ready to abandon the basic architecture of the Kyoto Protocol "in order to accommodate the United States."

Is the EU really trying to reach a compromise with the U.S., so as to make it more likely that the new agreement may go through the Senate? The lesson of the League of Nations, so passionately supported by President Woodrow Wilson but never ratified by the U.S. Senate, is hard to forget. But the differences between the USA and the EU on climate issues are big and real.

"Politicians in the USA and Canada are unwilling to take the same tough actions to reduce carbon emissions as their European counterparts have already done," said Connie Hedegaard, Denmark’s Minister for Climate and Energy, and host of the upcoming Copenhagen conference. "Cutting carbon emissions was not easy for Denmark either," she declared in an uncompromising tone. "Yet we did it, and will continue doing it. But how can we commit ourselves to further major cuts, if American and Canadian competitors do not do the same?"

There may no longer be enough time to bridge all the differences still on the negotiating table by the time the December conference opens. But failure is not an option, as all speakers at the recent editors’ forum, from Kofi Anan to Manuel Jose Barroso, from Joseph Stiglitz to George Soros, stated.

What is needed in Copenhagen is a strong show of political commitment. And to achieve that, it is imperative that all countries be represented at the conference at the highest political level.

"We have to be audacious, but also realistic and pragmatic," said the Indian Environmental Minister. "If the political momentum is there, we could continue to negotiate all the details of a full package agreement early in 2010."

President Obama will travel to Oslo on Dec. 10 to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Will he also make a stop in nearby Copenhagen for the Climate Conference? Granted, it’s a risky decision that certainly requires audacity. But isn’t that why he was elected – to tackle the big issues his predecessors had so disastrously chosen to ignore?


Romolo Gandolfo is Director for International Affairs at Lambrakis Press, Greece’s largest news publishing group, and editor-in-chief of, an online observatory on migration and refugee issues. With a BA in Political Science from the Univ. of Milan and an MPhil from Yale, he is professor of European Culture at the International Center for Hellenic and Mediterranean Studies in Athens.

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