UN summit: Can Obama meet expectations on climate change?

Obama pledged to tackle global warming in his presidential campaign. Now the world waits to see if he takes a leadership role at a climate change meeting at the UN Tuesday.

Afton Almaraz/AP
Thousands of climate change activists gather in New York’s Central Park on Sunday, to form a human sculpture – the shape of the earth trapped inside an hourglass - organized by Oxfam as a part of the "tcktcktck" campaign.
Afton Almaraz/AP

All eyes, and as important, all ears will be on President Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao Tuesday as heads of state from some 100 countries gather at the United Nations (UN) for a one-day summit on climate change.

The goal of the meeting is to inject new energy into the negotiating process as the clock counts down to UN-sponsored climate talks in Copenhagen December. And many are waiting for the US to take a leadership role.

"The world was and is really excited about what President Obama has demonstrated in terms of his commitment to engage on this topic, to take it seriously, and to show leadership in coming to a result in Copenhagen," said Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. "Now he has to deliver the goods."

When Mr. Obama takes the podium Tuesday, he needs to emphatically reaffirm his campaign pledges to fight global warming, especially his interest in returning the US to a leadership role at Copenhagen, Mr. de Boer said at a press briefing Monday.

"But he also needs to be very clear and say: Sorry guys, but if you don't also deliver at Copenhagen, I can't carry this load alone," he adds.

This is a recognition that the US Senate won't back an agreement unless it's clear that major developing countries such as China are also willing to make important commitments on greenhouse-gas emissions.

The Copenhagen talks aim to augment or replace the 1997 Kyoto Protocol with a new climate treaty that will take over as the protocol's first enforcement period expires at the end of 2012.

Continuing doubts about the US

Former President Bush had opposed the protocol, and pulled the US out of the Kyoto process. But even with a change in administrations in Washington and consequently a more aggressive effort to deal with the issue, some European officials have questioned the US's determination to tackle climate change.

With a comprehensive energy and climate bill stalled in the US Senate, European Commission Ambassador John Brunton asked in a statement last week whether the Senate truly expects everyone else to "make a serious effort on climate change" at December's talks without "a clear commitment from the United States?"

To some extent, rhetoric always heats up as key talks approach. From arms control to trade negotiations, few key players reveal their bottomlines before talks resume. Climate talks appear to be no exception to this pattern.

Yet expectations have also run high because of Obama's campaign pledges as well because of a constant drumbeat by US environmental activists in the final years of the Bush administration that a change of guard at the White House would bring fresh impetus for an agreement.

The importance of China

US lawmakers such as Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts have made it clear in international fora that they won’t repeat what they see was the mistake made with Kyoto – presenting the US Senate with a treaty it found unacceptable.

That's why Chinese President Hu Jintao's participation is also highly anticipated. He's expected to announce a package of measures from his country's newest five-year plan that includes policies on renewable energy, energy-efficient construction, transportation standards, and other policies that are far more climate-friendly than current policies.

Tuesday's sessions represent "an opportunity to demystify what countries are doing" to deal with the climate issue, de Boer says. "This sense that China is doing nothing is a fantasy. But you cannot get US participation in an ambitious Copenhagen outcome without that fantasy having been exposed."

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