The Monitor's View

Obama's global-warming crisis before Copenhagen

Instead of a binding treaty, he may be forced into patchwork solutions because Congress won't act.

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Remember those high hopes for this December's global-warming summit in Copenhagen, Denmark? Many nations were going to hold hands and jump together into the cold water of carbon cuts.

One for all and all for one. Sacrifices would be shared equally.

But Congress looks to be breaking up that party.

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Lawmakers are not expected to pass a climate-change bill anytime soon because of resistance from industry and consumers over the price tag of binding carbon targets. And a recession and the huge debate over healthcare have also sidetracked the issue.

This has forced President Obama into awkward diplomacy. He really can't commit to targets for reducing carbon emissions – as President Clinton did in signing the Kyoto treaty – without first having a climate-change law in place.

So difficult choices lie ahead. The concept of a new international treaty with binding targets may be defunct as long as the world's largest emitter of carbon emissions isn't on board.

One idea is for the US to go it alone or in concert with a few other countries and cut greenhouse gases at a pace that each country can endure. This would be discouraging news for those who say that the whole world, or at least the rich nations, must start reducing carbon emissions within a few years to avoid natural disasters later this century. The Copenhagen summit was supposed to be the "meeting that saved the world."

But despite Al Gore's best efforts, Americans are not yet concerned enough about global warming to force Congress to act. Creative alternatives are needed.

Some are already in the works or in place. California and a few other states are setting their own carbon standards. The Environmental Protection Agency plans tougher fuel-efficiency standards for vehicles by 2012, and may take other actions soon. Many companies, including some in the energy industry, find it good business to cut fossil fuel use. And billions in federal dollars are being spent on alternative energy sources and conservation.

Perhaps one important step lies in ongoing US-China talks about global warming. Together, both countries account for about 40 percent of greenhouse emissions. If the two can agree on separate but rigorous goals to invest in new technologies and force reductions in carbon use, other countries may follow.

Such a bilateral agreement would push along talks within a "club" of the world's largest emitting nations, known as the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate. The group of 17 was formed by Mr. Obama last spring, in part because Congress was balking on climate change.

Just as it has been difficult to negotiate one global pact on free trade, it may be impossible to have one climate-change treaty that does more than merely set broad goals. Smart diplomacy may well require bilateral and smaller multilateral groupings that design specific targets that are politically achievable.

A patchwork of solutions, driven by the actual level of public commitment to this issue, may be what really happens at the Copenhagen summit.

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