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What Happened to a Binding Treaty in Copenhagen? Uncovering Efforts to Undermine Action

For much of this fall, most public statements by both US and UN officials have been pointedly aimed at lowering expectations. How did we get to this point?

On the eve of the UN's long-awaited Copenhagen climate summit, officials are pulling out all the stops to spin the conference as a success, no matter what actually happens. Barack Obama's announcement that he will briefly pass through Copenhagen was a headline story, as was China's commitment to reduce their economy's "carbon intensity," merely lowering their rate of increase in greenhouse gas emissions. Some are proclaiming the advantages of a non-binding "political" or "operational" agreement, as an incremental step toward reducing worldwide emissions. Others are preoccupied with the manufactured scandal stemming from some UK climate researchers' stolen emails. It's everything but what was once promised: the setting for a new binding global treaty to forestall catastrophic climate changes.

It wasn't supposed to be that way. For several years now, environmentalists in North America, Europe, and around the world have been describing this as a decisive moment in the history of the global climate crisis. Since the passage of the still-controversial Kyoto Protocol in 1997, signatories to the Protocol, and to the more comprehensive UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), have held major biennial conferences to further these documents' implementation. With the first so-called "commitment period" of Kyoto scheduled to end in 2012, the Copenhagen meeting has long been described as the crucial moment to forestall increasingly uncontrollable climate disruptions.

For well over a year now, environmentalists have been planning events, drafting reports, and coordinating action plans with the Copenhagen conference in mind. The October 24th "350.org" events around the world -- over 5000 recorded activities in 181 countries dramatizing the need to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide to below 350 parts per million -- were timed to influence Copenhagen. Until mid-November, the timetable for Congressional action on US climate legislation was also partly aimed toward the international stage. Speculations about whether Obama would go to Copenhagen were the subject of countless news reports, blog postings, and impassioned pleas by Greenpeace and other well-known organizations.

For much of this fall, however, most public statements by both US and UN officials have been pointedly aimed at lowering expectations. US climate negotiators have been evasive for months about what if any commitments they would bring to the table. Senate committees began deleting the climate bill from their year-end calendars in mid-November, after a Republican boycott of Senator Boxer's hearings allowed for only a pro-forma passage of a highly flawed bill by the Environment and Public Works Committee, which she chairs. Earlier in the fall, UNFCCC Executive Secretary Yvo de Boer began refocusing his public statements toward the 'art of the possible.'

What may have been the decisive rupture came during talks in Bangkok in mid-October, aimed at finalizing the framework for a Copenhagen agreement. For the first time, European Union representatives echoed the US refusal to make any future commitments under the framework established by the Kyoto Protocol. While previous UN climate meetings have been aided by the Europeans' insistence on scientifically meaningful emission targets, this change in position -- perhaps a result of Obama's "improved" diplomacy -- significantly shifted the focus of the talks and raised the level of acrimony to new heights. A month later, African delegates walked out of a follow-up meeting in Barcelona, and threatened to do the same in Copenhagen if rich countries refused to commit to meaningful emission reductions. Finally, at a breakfast meeting during the APEC summit in Singapore in mid-November, Obama and Danish prime minister Rasmussen announced definitively that a legally binding climate treaty would take at least another year to negotiate.

How and why has the world gotten to this point? Part of the reason stems from the inherent flaws in the Kyoto Protocol, but much of the blame rests with US policymakers, who have been working behind the scenes to undermine Copenhagen for quite a long time. To complicate things further, negotiators on different sides of the table have conflicting interpretations of what the Kyoto Protocol means and to what degree it should help define the terms of future agreements.

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