Climate: Why the U.S. Is Bargaining So Hard at Cancún

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Todd Stern

You don’t have to be in Washington to hear the howls of progressive Democrats enraged by what they see as President Obama’s capitulation to the Republicans on taxes—they’re audible all the way down here in Cancún. (Twitter helps.) As Timothy Noah of Slate puts it, Obama seems to be an easy mark, a terrible poker player who telegraphs his hand and lets tougher players bully him. As a negotiator, Obama has repeatedly given away early concessions before he even sits down at the table (see his decision to announce expanded offshore drilling earlier this year, before Senate negotiations on a climate bill began in earnest), and seems to prefer compromise to fighting for his debating principles (see, well, lots).


Pissed-off Democrats should come down to Cancún, because when it comes to climate diplomacy, at least, the President’s team bargains hard for every inch—and they seem willing to walk away from a compromise if it doesn’t fit their needs. (Also, the weather here is great.) The U.S. negotiators have long insisted that any climate deal must include both developed and developing nations (chiefly meaning China), and that while the two sides wouldn’t be expected to take on the same kinds of cuts, the actions of all nations need to internationally measurable, reportable and verifiable (MRV) in a complementary way. As top climate envoy Todd Stern put it earlier this week:

What we need to do is to produce a balanced package of decisions covering all the core issues from the Copenhagen Accord, including mitigation, transparency, financing, technology, adaptation and the REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) issue.

And to get that “balanced package”—including the all-important MRV—the U.S. is apparently willing to slow progress on certain aspects of the climate negotiations, like REDD, that are much closer to completion than the deal as a whole. In response, as the negotiations enter their last official day on Friday, China seems to be digging in its heels as well, even though the public comments of both sides have been much less inflammatory than they were last year in Copenhagen. “We’re at crunch time of negotiations,” says Barbara Finamore, who runs the China program for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Both sides are linking everything to progress on their top issues.”

But it’s the U.S. that is getting much of the blame from other countries and activists here in Cancún for standing in the way of, if not a full deal, at least the possibility of progress on the slices of climate action that are close to completion. “In a whole number of issue areas the U.S. is holding back, creating obstacles and creating a lot of friction,” says David Waskow, climate change program director for Oxfam America.

To environmental activists—and to the representatives of the most vulnerable countries—the U.S.’s hardline negotiating stance is confusing and counterproductive. Everyone understands the sheer complexity of the challenge facing negotiators here at Cancún, who not only have to pick up the pieces of last year’s Copenhagen Accord, but have to reckon with the debilitating debate over the future of the Kyoto Protocol. Given how hard it will be to come to a decent agreement here—and given the ever-increasing need to begin to chip away at carbon emissions by almost any means necessary—holding out for a balanced agreement and potentially leaving points of agreement like REDD on the negotiating table just seems wrong. “I think there should be enough to allow that other progress in the other areas to go forward, but they don’t seem to want to take that approach,” says Lou Leonard, the managing director of climate change for the World Wildlife Fund. “Right now the U.S. has put the brakes on a few places.”

But let’s try to think like a U.S. negotiator for a bit. (First, don’t sleep for about 30 hours, because that’s the state most of them will be in by now.) You’re trying to build a bargain among more than 190 nations, all of which have different interests, different wants and needs. If you choose to essentially give away the most popular parts of a potential deal—like REDD, or funding for technology transfer—it might end up being that much harder to corral people for the tougher decisions, because you’ve surrendered the goodies without getting anything back in return. (See offshore drilling, or Obama’s recent decision to preemptively freeze the pay of federal workers.) It’s negotiating 101—and as I wrote earlier today, people often forget that the talks over climate change, important as they are, are still negotiations. The diplomats at the table are trying to get the best deal they can. “It would be very tough if not impossible for the U.S. negotiators to come home with a deal that is only gives, not gets,” says Elliot Diringer, vice president for international strategies at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change.

Indeed, America’s tough negotiating position at Cancún is motivated in part by the fact that the diplomats here know they’ll eventually have to take back whatever deal gets approved to a Congress that is increasingly hostile to both climate change and China. If China is seen as steamrolling America’s negotiating team here, any agreement forged would stand little change of success back home. The State Department’s team here is being tough because they know the reception on Capitol Hill will be even tougher. Anyone complaining about the current American team might want to think back to the days of George W. Bush’s climate hardliners. And you can bet that China’s negotiators are playing hardball too. One environmental activist said today, half-seriously, that the Chinese diplomats had to stretch the talks to the last minute, because if they ended them early they would be fired on the grounds that they must not have bargained hard enough.

Still, it’s a dangerous game that Washington is playing with a climate, because there’s no guarantee we’ll come to any conclusion here in Cancún. A somber Chris Huhne, the British energy and environment minister, warned on Thursday that the talks were headed towards a “car crash” over the disputed fate of the Kyoto Protocol. As I was finishing this post Russia’s climate envoy Alexander Bedritsky was telling the summit crowd that his country would not take on a second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol, joining Japan in its defiance and making the chance of a deal here that much less likely. If that happens, American intransigence may lead to nothing, instead of at least a few climate consolation prizes. Ironically, it’s exactly what Todd Stern warned about when he began pushing at the summit for a balanced agreement:

Let’s not do nothing. Let’s not be hung up for year after year after year.

We might end up with nothing. But if we do, I’m not sure we’ll be doing this again next year.