By Ed King
Negotiators heading to the latest round of UN climate talks in Bonn next week appear quietly confident the US could be ready to re-engage with the multilateral process.
Washington has been a reluctant participant in efforts to develop a global consensus on climate change over the past decade, preferring to pursue non-binding schemes outside the UN framework.
And while it’s unlikely Congress would currently accept any form of international emissions deal, UK government sources have told RTCC the administration’s attitude to international talks has become far more positive the past few months.
“It’s early days but there looks like there’s something behind the PR,” they said.
“In the first officials meeting in March, the Japan-Brazil dialogue, the US was so noticeably different in its approach in terms of its probing and questioning nature, wanting to engage on the 2015 deal and being constructive on suggestions, having a genuine conversation with people rather than closing them down.
“So noticeable it has to be intentional and a senior decision to change the approach.”
President Obama gave the cause his public backing in his State of the Union speech, warning Congress he would take unilateral steps if it did not treat the issue seriously.
But much of this change has been attributed to the arrival of John Kerry at the State Department. A long-time climate campaigner, Kerry was behind a failed attempt to push a cap and trade system through Congress in 2010.
Since his appointment in February, he has embarked on a series of climate change meetings with counterparts from China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and the EU.
A State spokesperson told RTCC climate change had risen up the agenda since his arrival – a view our UK source agrees with.
“Regarding the US-China announcement on that working group on climate, we are led to believe that it was a Kerry initiative, so there does appear to be substance,” they said.
“Obama mentioning it in his speeches – we are led to believe that was his call to give it a greater profile in his second term. It will still take some months to work out how this will manifest itself but there seems to be more than PR.”
UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon seemed to back this up on Wednesday, telling an audience at Bloomberg Obama was “committed” to a low carbon economy and had “assured me the US will lead by example by taking action on the ground.”
Tar sands dilemma
Separating talk from action will be vital in the coming months.
As the New York Times reports, long awaited legislation on cutting emissions from power plants has been delayed, while the future of the Keystone XL pipeline hangs ominously in the background.
This week the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) said it had significant concerns over the Keystone assessment conducted by the State Department.
It could be months before a decision is made – but it is likely to colour the climate debate in the USA in the build-up to 2015.
Many are not convinced the US position has budged an inch. Veteran UK analyst Tom Burke says little has changed in the fundamentals of the USA’s approach to climate change – describing it as the “Bush policy with green ribbons”.
“There is a new Washington consensus emerging from administration officials plus academics, think tanks and NGOs,” he told RTCC.
“And it follows that two degrees is gone, the UNFCCC is broken, we have to be realistic about what is achievable and what we need is ambition through participation – whatever that means.”
In 2011 the US agreed to discuss a global deal under duress from the EU and an alliance of poor and climate-vulnerable countries. But there has been little since then to indicate it regards the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) as an effective vehicle to achieving emission reductions.
In the last year the US has aggressively pushed projects outside the UN talks such as the Climate and Clean Air Coalition while arguing emissions agreements should be discussed at the Major Economies Forum.
Burke contends the US will try and will dictate the terms of Ban Ki Moon’s proposed 2014 leaders’ climate summit at the General Assembly in New York.
“The best they can do is another version of the Copenhagen Accord. The Americans will be there, are very well thought through, have a good idea of what they want – which is more of this pledge and review bottom-up approach,” he said.
“In particular the political shop in the White House will want the President to come out of that summit, able to say America is back in the game, we’re in the lead, we’re showing the world what to do and have persuaded everyone to follow our approach.
“If that’s what comes out in 2014 it sets the political bounds for what the French can achieve in 2015, and it will be low ambition. If I’m right in my analysis on where the Americans are you could lose the whole game in 2014 – not even in 2015.”
Burke does not doubt Kerry and Obama’s commitment to addressing the issue – rather he suggests the political battle has already been lost in Washington.
EU officials appear to hold a more optimistic view, suggesting that a ‘Spectrum of Commitments’ approach to the 2015 talks could offer the US a flexible way of entering into an emissions agreement.
And the launch of a new campaign by the Organizing for Action (OFA) group urging supporters to “tell Congress it’s time to stop the denial” could yet pay dividends.
But it may be the US ceases to be the biggest problem on the multilateral stage. That award could pass to Canada – owners of the Alberta tar sands and a country that has quit two UN environmental treaties in the past 12 months.