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The deal's off

Environment | Hopes grow cold for a landmark climate treaty at Copenhagen

Issue: "Homegrown terror," Dec. 5, 2009

It was early November, the last day of a United Nations conference in Barcelona. Delegates from 175 countries had gathered to wrangle over carbon dioxide emissions, and Yvo de Boer, a middle-aged man in glasses and a yellow tie, sat down in front of a microphone to summarize the week-long talks. As UN climate secretary, de Boer was saddled with the task of coaching world leaders into a climate change treaty by December: "Governments can deliver a strong deal in Copenhagen," he said in a firm, sharp voice. "Nothing has changed my confidence in that."

De Boer might have been the only confident person in the building. After five days of private meetings that reached little agreement and included a walkout by African delegates, both envoys and environmentalists were skeptical any treaty would be hammered out at a Dec. 7-18 climate change summit in Copenhagen, Denmark. Developments at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit on Nov. 15 cemented such skepticism: President Obama and other world leaders decided they would not seek a legally binding deal at Copenhagen.

For two years the UN has been arranging meetings to piece together a treaty curbing greenhouse-gas emissions. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) claims greenhouse gases have increased the global average temperature by 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit since 1905. To slow the alleged threat of melting polar ice caps, rising sea levels, and widespread flooding and droughts, the panel says major world powers should cut CO2 emissions 25 percent to 40 percent by 2020. (Some independent studies have disputed the IPCC's assessment.) Further, the UN expects the United States and other affluent nations to help developing nations adopt low-carbon practices and adapt to regional climate problems-at an estimated cost of $150 billion per year by 2020.

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That's a tough sell during a widespread recession. The climate change talks have highlighted a rift between rich and poor countries that has complicated such negotiations ever since the Kyoto Protocol was signed by the Clinton administration in 1998. Kyoto, expiring in 2012, was never ratified by the U.S. Senate since it didn't require emerging nations like China-now the world's biggest polluter-to rein in their own emissions.

Neither would a new treaty, so far. Rather than make concessions at the Barcelona talks, developing nations made it clear they weren't willing to tackle global warming until financial offers were on the table. In turn, envoys from wealthier nations declined to make aid commitments until the developing nations described how they'd cut emissions, resulting in what one delegate called a "chicken-and-egg situation."

At one point, African delegates boycotted the talks for a day. Lumumba Di-Aping, a Sudanese envoy who acted as spokesperson for the developing countries, demanded wealthier nations commit to cutting 40 percent of their emissions by 2020. Anything less, he said, would "condemn developing countries to a total destruction of their livelihoods, their economies. Their land, their forests will all be destroyed."

"I see this as another effort at a shakedown by Third World developing nations of Western developed nations," said E. Calvin Beisner of the Cornwall Alliance, a Judeo-Christian environmental policy group. (WORLD founder Joel Belz is on its board of advisors.) Beisner said the UN negotiations aim at wealth redistribution by appealing to a "widespread feeling of guilt" among wealthier states-guilt for allegedly contributing to global warming.

The UN treaty would allow other nations to hold the United States responsible for its level of emissions. Since the only way to cut CO2 is to reduce the burning of fossil fuels or adopt expensive alternative energy, it would come at a huge economic cost and even drive U.S. industries to less affluent nations, where they could emit freely. In spite of President Obama's support for climate change measures, his administration needs an indication that the Senate would support such an action during a recession and a healthcare debate before it can make international commitments.

The Senate is instead giving indications that it would not. The same day African delegates walked out of the Barcelona meetings, seven Senate Republicans had a boycott of their own in Washington. It was over the Kerry-Boxer "cap-and-trade" bill, which the Environment and Public Works Committee-chaired by bill co-author Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.-was preparing to revise and vote on. Before the markup session began, Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., the committee's ranking Republican and an outspoken global-warming skeptic, told Boxer his party wouldn't be attending unless she agreed to allow a detailed EPA analysis of the bill's economic impact.

What Boxer agreed to do was pass her bill through committee on 11 Democratic votes, without a single Republican present. (One Democrat voted nay.) It was the first time she'd made such a move-what Inhofe called a "nuclear option" that was "theater in preparation for Copenhagen."

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