Will climate talks yield climate action?

David MoultonToday the U.S. delegation here in Copenhagen continued with a sustained and impressive charm offensive as ministers and heads of state began arriving. Tomorrow, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is scheduled make it to the Bella Center, followed on Friday by President Obama himself. More than any other factor at work here in Denmark, it is the imminent presence of over 100 prime ministers, presidents and other country leaders that keeps optimism alive even as the agreement text remains bracketed with placeholder language. Senator Kerry provided an upbeat call to arms in a well-timed speech to a large international audience assembled in one of the convention auditoriums. Applause was vigorous when he noted

"If (former Vice President) Dick Cheney can argue that even a 1 percent chance of a terrorist attack is 100 percent justification for preemptive action, then surely, when scientists tell us that climate change is nearly a 100 percent certainty, we ought to be able to stand together...and join in an all out effort to combat a mortal threat to the life of this planet."

Later in the day, U.S. Presidential Advisor on Science Advisor John Holdren presented a summary of climate science and US efforts to combat climate change leading up to the summit. "We know with very high confidence that global warming is real and man-made," said Holdren. "It is not just a problem for our children and grandchildren, it is a problem today. To bend the curve of emissions back in a sustainable direction, we must get started quickly."

Dr. Holdren cited huge new funding increases for clean tech and efficiency through the jobs bill early in the year, tough new efficiency standards for a range of energy-guzzling appliances and automobiles, and a U.S.-led commitment at the G20 summit to phase-out fossil fuel subsidies. The climate and energy bill has passed the House, led by Chairmen Henry Waxman and Ed Markey, containing the key to long-term support for clean tech by capping carbon, and a 20 percent Renewable Electricity Standard.

This is all in support of an agenda driven by, in Holdren's words, "a President of the United States who understands this opportunity to stimulate new jobs and growth."

But there is no question that the Administration has a difficult three-day voyage ahead as it navigates between a U.S. Senate who has failed to act, and an international audience that expects the U.S. to lead. The Senate wants more time while the world is saying "time's up." There are plenty of realistic scenarios floating around the building about the talks collapsing. Those aforementioned brackets in the text are labels for huge disputes between countries of the north and south, representing rich and poor, already economies developed and developing. How many heads of state does it take to pin down a climate agreement? Friday is the moment when the world will get an answer to that question.


This article also appears on the National Journal's Copenhagen Insider blog.