At Stake in Climate Talks: America’s Global Leadership Role

At Stake in Climate Talks: America’s Global Leadership Role

© Benoit Tessier / Reuters

The final week of climate negotiations begins today and a lot is at stake. Of the 195 nations in attendance, two have more to gain or lose than any others.

One of these is the Marshall Islands. Anebok, one of the 1,150 islands and islets that comprise it, recently disappeared under the sea. “Put simply,” Foreign Minister Tony de Brum declared at the podium last week, “I refuse to go home from Paris without being able to look my grandchildren in the eye and say I have a good deal for you.”

The other is the United States. Apart from the air we breathe and whether we’ll soon plant rice in New Hampshire, the question for Americans is politically stark: Are we going to maintain a leadership role in the 21st century or will we forfeit this, paradoxically, because some of us insist upon it but refuse to earn it?

Related: Where The Top Six GOP Presidential Candidates Come Down on Climate Change

As noted previously in this space, President Obama clearly intends to make progress on climate change a big part of his legacy. When he pushed through strict curbs on power plant emissions last August, he timed the move to give U.S. foreign policy a forward-tilted cast when the Paris talks convened.

Now, however, we’re watching a replay of the agreement governing Iran’s nuclear program prompted when it was signed last July. The politicking that tried to defeat it was a foolhardy loser then, and it will be a loser again.

Obama hardly had his feet on French soil when the House passed two measures undercutting the administration’s Clean Power Plan, the core of its pre-summit pledge to cut greenhouse gases by 26 to 28 percent. The intent, lawmakers happily explained, was to undercut any agreements the U.S. delegation may sign this week.

“Don’t count on America?” That’s the intended message? Those sending it had better watch themselves: Try this trick a few more times and the rest of the world won’t.  

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Reports this weekend from Le Bourget, the Paris suburb where 40,000 delegates, scientists, political figures, NGOs, and the like have assembled (and where Lindbergh landed in 1927, let’s not forget), were unexpectedly positive. There’s little of the pessimism that pervaded the Copenhagen summit in 2009. A 50-page document has already been condensed to a pithy 21-page draft accord. (The Copenhagen document was 300 pages at this stage.)

There are many outstanding questions, participants say, but it looks likely this week will end with an agreement. Su Wei, who leads the Chinese delegation, said it as well as anyone: “It has laid a solid foundation, like when we cook a meal you need to have all the seasonings and ingredients and recipes. Next week is the actual cooking.”

There’s some sweet and some sour on the prep table at this point. Here are some of the issues still to be addressed:

  • Differences between the global North and South must be reconciled. Who helps developing nations cover the costs of climate changes (and with how much)? Should rich and poor alike be held accountable for their progress toward emission-reduction goals?

Related: Climate Summit: Can Obama Convince 130 Countries to Reduce Carbon Emissions?

  • Should the final document fix an upper limit on global warming at 1.5 degrees centigrade? The Saudis want no reference to this target; the draft offers a choice between 1.5C degrees and “well below 2 degrees.”

  • The Saudis, proving difficult on several fronts, don’t want any interim review of the national commitments written into the final agreement. The draft calls for emission targets for 2020 to 2030 to be reconsidered prior to 2020 and possibly increased. The argument here is that reductions as now drafted are unlikely to meet the 1.5C target.

  • Should wealthy nations be bound to environmental control investments above the $100 billion per year mandated in Copenhagen six years ago?

I wouldn’t say Obama streaked through the Paris gathering like Clark Kent last week, but he did O.K. His pledge last year of $3 billion to the U.N.’s Green Climate Fund to assist poor nations coping with climate-related problems stood up well, although this not nearly proportionate to the U.S. share of global GDP or its rank as the world’s No. 2 polluter.

Related: Three Reasons Americans Won’t Back Obama’s Climate Accord

He also cast the climate question as a challenge to global security and stability—an essential connection, notably in the Middle East. His remarks at Le Bourget properly stressed the urgency of the moment. “This is a turning point,” Obama said. “Our nations share a sense of urgency about this challenge and a growing realization that it is within our power to do something about it.”

Such views bear no political stripe. But think about how it looked to 194 other delegations when 10 senators felt compelled to show up in Le Bourget to assure the world that they “had Barack Obama’s back.”

It’s pathetic that things have come to this.

For months, Obama’s political adversaries have been spreading the word among foreign diplomats and officials that they shouldn’t assume the U.S. will abide by anything agreed in Paris. They tried the same tactic while the Iran nuclear pact was in negotiation.

Related: U.S. senators vow to block climate aid, scrutinize Paris deal

I simply can’t guess what these legislators hope to accomplish, but the actual consequence of this kind of tactic is an easy enough call: America’s leadership on a key 21st century issue is diminished. Who will take seriously a nation of political brawlers whose fights always spill into the street?

The paradox here is that those attacking the administration as it conducts business in Paris are very often those who insist that the primacy America enjoyed for decades after 1945 must continue. Could they do any more to defeat their own purpose? 

Leadership accrues to a nation not because of its previous achievements but because it earns a leading role by way of innovative responses to present-day challenges. It derives from what a nation is, not what it once was—the present, not the past. This truth bears no stripe, either.