I recently received a report from a delegate to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change’s latest talks in Accra, Ghana. The most high-profile of the conference topics was the evolution toward an agreement in Copenhagen next year that will set emissions targets for what is known as the “second commitment period.” The first commitment period, for which the Kyoto Protocol sets emissions targets, ends in 2012.
The delegate I talked to is extremely dismayed by the current trend taking place at the talks. It seems as if the Copenhagen agreement is being fashioned so as to allow some secondary level of U.S. participation without ratification. In other words, U.S. NGOs, Senate staff (including some who I greatly respect), and country delegations have resigned themselves to the impossibility of U.S. ratification of any international climate agreement and are negotiating some way the U.S. can take some lesser action and save some face.
In nearly every major foreign policy fight in the Senate that I worked on, bursting the bubble of inevitable failure was the greatest obstacle to actual success. When John Bolton was nominated as UN Ambassador, the willingness of Democratic leaders to concede the likelihood that Bolton would be confirmed — combined with Republican leaders’ full assurances that they had the votes to confirm him — almost sealed the deal.
When he was nominated a second time, I was the first to actually count the votes on confirmation. Until I reported the votes weren’t there, Bolton’s confirmation was so universally assumed that even his most staunch opponents hadn’t devoted any time or attention to the issue (I looked the link to my original Bolton Watch post the vote count but apparently the old BW stuff at TPM Cafe has been taken down).
Ditto the Law of the Sea Convention, but without the happy ending as yet: though the votes were clearly there, the prediction that no floor time could possibly be allotted to approving the treaty ultimately became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I’m concerned the same is happening now with a climate agreement that has not yet even been drafted. It seems that crafting an exception to the agreement only hurts the prospects of full U.S. participation. I would like to hear the counter-argument (from the point of view of civil society), so if you are of the opposing view, please do post in comments or send me e-mail.
Yes, ratification would be an extremely tough battle. But it’s precisely the kind of policy battle that can be used to leverage real, lasting political change. Robust solutions to global warming are fast becoming a big political winner, and ratification of a major climate agreement is the kind of big, ambitious goal that organizers salivate over. Obviously, it would be nice if such an agreement could be agreed to by unanimous consent, but failing that, a contentious fight that mobilizes the grassroots on this issue is nothing to shy away from.
If that effort were to fail, it would still bring some much needed accountability to senators trapped in a 20th century mindset. And at that point there should be little doubt that the next President, either Obama or McCain, would move quickly to create acceptable alternative channels for participation, so I doubt much lasting damage would be done.
Who knows…ratification might actually succeed. Either way, it still seems far too early to rule out the possibility.
— Scott Paul