The United States will come under some serious heat this month, but the climate drama won't be taking place at United Nations talks.
With more than a month to go before the Copenhagen climate talks, the press are practically tripping themselves to write off the talks as a failure. Now, I'm not here to blow sunshine and tell you that all's going great here in Barcelona, and that we're well on our way to a fair, ambitious, and binding deal coming out of COP15. But I do think the terminal diagnoses are a bit premature. Why? Because there are a boatload of critical stops-and great opportunities for progress-still remaining on this road to Copenhagen that could make this a true November to remember for international diplomacy.
Here's the thing: For all the thousands of delegates who travel tens of thousands of miles to get together at these "intersessional" talks and eventually in Copenhagen, the real action happens elsewhere. As a climate expert with decades of experience with the international negotiations process admitted to me, "There's a real limit to what can get done in these negotiations. At this point, everything has to come from the Heads of State." Meaning, negotiators in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change only have so much room to move. There's a very slim mandate granted the delegates by their respective lords and masters (and employers). The cards each delegation holds in its hand (to use the most overused metaphor of these talks) are given to them by the powers above, and are typically determined by domestic politics back home. (I dug into this as it relates to the bills struggling through Congress a couple weeks back.)
But now, as pressure mounts and the potential for an embarrassing failure in Copenhagen rises, the real decision-makers might feel compelled to sit down, look each other in the eyes, and try to figure some things out. Bilateral meetings, summits, small forums-that's where the real hope for a climate deal now lies. "The U.S. and E.U. need to sit down and fall in line," the same expert told me. "Obama has to go to China with a plan. And then India... Negotiators meeting with negotiators? None of it really matters unless the leaders are meeting with other leaders." Those leaders will have plenty of opportunity to do so this month.
Consider what follows to be something of an addendum to my earlier Countdown to Copenhagen calendar. These are some absolutely crucial meetings between vital players, any one of which could kick these talks into high gear-or, if Heads of State keep playing coy, derail them entirely.
November 3-4: U.S.-E.U. Summit, Washington D.C.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, and other key European foreign policy players will come to the White House, and climate is on the agenda. Merkel will actually take some time to address Congress and urge them to join every other industrialized nation with a domestic climate change plan. Finance (for developing nations to build their own clean energy economies, and also to adapt to the impacts of climate change) will be prominent in the talks, and there's some hope that the United States will align with Europe. As Antonio Hill, Senior Climate Advisor for Oxfam, said, "The finance ball is in the U.S.'s court. It must say how much money it is going to commit to help poor countries tackle climate change. The E.U.-U.S. Summit is a perfect opportunity for America to move forward with the E.U. on climate finance. If there is political will in Washington there could be real progress in Barcelona."
November 6-7: G20 Finance Ministers meeting, Scotland
More finance. As instructed by Heads of State in the Pittsburgh G20 meeting, ministers must report back "a range of possible options for climate change financing." This is less about hard numbers and more about who'll hold the purse strings and how cash will be delivered, all of which is contentious and key to the negotiations.
November 14-15: President Obama visits Beijing, China
This is potentially the most important bilateral meeting of Obama's tenure, and worth holding your breathe over. Back in August, the two nations signed a "Memo of Understanding" on climate change and clean energy cooperation. Hopes are high that a truly momentous announcement of definite commitments and concrete actions will come out of this visit.
Mid-November: Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate, United States (probably)
Launched by Obama in March, the MEF, which includes 17 major world economies including the United States, European Union, Russia, Japan, China, India, and Brazil, has been meeting monthly. Experts expect cooperative clean energy technology action plans to be presented and for the Communique to set the tone for Copenhagen.
November 24: Prime Minister Singh visits the US, Washington, D.C.
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will come to the capital to talk about trade, business, and of course climate. India wants stronger commitments for adaptation aid and more generous technology transfer laws. The US will be insisting that India figure out how to measure, report and verify their emissions mitigation actions. India has made some bold, ambitious climate claims of late, but have also called out the United States for "measly" efforts.
December 7-19: COP15, Copenhagen, Denmark
To be continued...