By Gregor Peter Schmitz in Washington
When Americans celebrate Thanksgiving, it's the turkeys that pay. Except for the one bird each year that the president himself pardons. This year, it was a 45 pound (20.4 kilograms) feathered fowl by the name of Courage who was allowed to continue its life of pecking and gobbling. Raising his hand over Courage's head, President Barack Obama on Wednesday intoned "you are hereby pardoned."
It's a nice gesture. But for the rest of the planet, Obama's other Wednesday gesture was far more meaningful. In a White House press release, Obama announced that he was, in fact, planning on attending the global climate conference, which begins in Copenhagen early next month. He will be dropping by on Dec. 9 on his way to Oslo to collect his Nobel Peace Prize.
More than that, however, Obama will be bringing along concrete US pledges to reduce CO2 emissions -- something that Washington has so far avoided. "The president believes it is possible to reach a meaningful agreement in Copenhagen," the statement, released on Wednesday, reads. He will propose that the US reduce emissions by 17 percent by 2020 relative to 2005 levels.
An Important Signal
The move precludes the horror scenario feared by climate activists across the world: a global climate summit without the president of the country with the highest per capita greenhouse gas emissions. Only recently, Obama's White House staff had advised him against attending the meeting as they didn't expect an agreement to materialize. Now, it appears that climate lobbyists like Al Gore were correct. "I feel certain he will go," Gore told SPIEGEL in a recent interview.
Obama's decision sends an important signal to Democratic Party allies, many of whom have become disappointed with their president's lack of progress on climate protection issues. But it was also intended for European consumption, where frustration with Obama's climate dithering had become widespread.
"It's a very good development," said Michael Oppenheimer, a climate expert with Princeton University, on PBS television on Wednesday. "It will get the negotiations off to a very sound start." Arne Jungjohann, from the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Washington, agrees. "Obama's participation in the climate summit will provide the negotiations with new momentum," he told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "The US government is doing its part to ensure that a political framework is agreed on in Copenhagen that can result in a detailed climate treaty next year."
In addition, Obama's visit to the conference could generate movement in the Senate, where a far-reaching climate bill remains bogged down. John Kerry, co-author of the Senate bill and chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Obama's decision to head to Copenhagen "could be a game changer with big reverberations" in Congress.
Sprang to Their Feet
The House of Representatives has already passed a climate bill, but a similar bill has yet to make its way through the Senate, primarily due to a monumental health care bill that is ahead of climate change in the reform queue. In addition, Senate Republicans are doing what they can to block the climate bill. When German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke before a joint session of Congress at the beginning of this month, she came away with the impression of a deeply divided parliament. Merkel said, "we cannot afford to depart from the goals mandated by science." Many Democrats sprang to their feet in applause. The Republicans remained seated.
Still, Obama's offer to lower greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent relative to 2005 levels -- far lower than the Europeans had been hoping for -- suggests that the US will not be moved to make greater pledges. But the president knows that US support for climate measures in the US has fallen, especially as unemployment rates have risen to near 10 percent.
Nevertheless, the fact that Obama is now personally engaging in the climate talks could be an indication that he is now willing to fight for measures to combat climate change. For the first time, he's sending the signal that he's "ready to roll up his sleeves to make a climate change deal happen," Raymond Offenheiser, president of Oxfam America, an international development group, told the Washington Post.
It could, however, be merely a tactical gesture in order to prove his good will. Obama will only be in Copenhagen at the beginning of the talks, not at the end of the 12-day conference when most other heads of state and government will arrive to hammer out a deal. Furthermore, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso was reserved in welcoming the White House announcement. "I have made clear that we need as many world leaders as possible," he said.
Prominent climate activists don't want to overestimate Obama's gesture. "This is not a reversal," Peter Goldmark from the New York-based Environmental Defense Fund told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "Without the US's own legislation, it's difficult to see what Obama can contribute other than moral support."
How other countries will react remains to be seen. The Americans have always said that other countries need to make contributions as well, particularly China and India. "They have to accept binding provisions," former Vice-President Al Gore said in his SPIEGEL interview. "Many developing nations are still thinking that the wealthier countries will make binding obligations, and the developing countries will have non-binding provisions. That is not a formula for success." Carol Browner, Obama's energy and environment czar, said "We hope other major economies will put forth ambitious action plans of their own."
But Goldmark says that, to his knowledge, there is no concrete agreement with China regarding binding emissions reduction pledges. In other words, it appears that Copenhagen -- despite Obama's attendance -- will still be seen as a step in a longer process rather than an endpoint. A similar chord was struck by the US president and Asian leaders during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) talks two weeks ago.
'An Abysmal Failure'
No matter what happens, the Americans must first pass legislation at home. "Unfortunately, the path to a global agreement goes through the US Senate," said Goldmark. "America's Congress has to act first before other countries will follow."
The Republicans seem to be far from signing on. "The fact remains that international UN climate treaties would severely undermine our economy, ship jobs overseas and raise energy prices," said Senator James Inhofe, the senior Republican on the Senate Environment Committee in reaction to Obama's plans to go to Copenhagen.
Conservative radio talkmaster Rush Limbaugh couldn't help but remind his listeners of Obama's last trip to the Danish capital in an effort to campaign for Chicago's failed Olympic bid. "Wherever he goes, he is an abysmal failure," Limbaugh said.
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