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November 15, 2009
Leaders Agree to Delay a Deal on Climate Change
By HELENE COOPER
SINGAPORE — President Obama and other world leaders have decided to put off the difficult task of reaching a climate change agreement at a global climate conference scheduled for next month, agreeing instead to make it the mission of the Copenhagen conference to reach a less specific “politically binding” agreement that would punt the most difficult issues into the future.
At a hastily arranged breakfast on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit meeting on Sunday morning, the leaders, including Lars Lokke Rasmussen, the prime minister of Denmark and the chairman of the climate conference, agreed that in order to salvage Copenhagen they would have to push a fully binding legal agreement down the road, possibly to a second summit meeting in Mexico City later on.
“There was an assessment by the leaders that it is unrealistic to expect a full internationally, legally binding agreement could be negotiated between now and Copenhagen, which starts in 22 days,” said Michael Froman, the deputy national security adviser for international economic affairs. “I don’t think the negotiations have proceeded in such a way that any of the leaders thought it was likely that we were going to achieve a final agreement in Copenhagen, and yet thought that it was important that Copenhagen be an important step forward, including with operational impact.”
With the clock running out and deep differences unresolved, it has, for several months, appeared increasingly unlikely that the climate change negotiations in Denmark would produce a comprehensive and binding new treaty on global warming, as its organizers had intended.
The agreement on Sunday codifies what negotiators had already accepted as all but inevitable: that representatives of the 192 nations in the talks would not resolve the outstanding issues in time. The gulf between rich and poor countries, and even among the wealthiest nations, was just too wide.
Among the chief barriers to a comprehensive deal in Copenhagen was Congress’s inability to enact climate and energy legislation that sets binding targets on greenhouse gases in the United States. Without such a commitment, other nations are loath to make their own pledges.
Administration officials and Congressional leaders have said that final legislative action on a climate bill would not occur before the first half of next year.
After his breakfast meeting in Singapore, Mr. Obama was scheduled to meet with Asian leaders and to hold a number of one-on-one sessions, including one with the Russian president, Dmitri A. Medvedev.
After his meeting with Mr. Medvedev, Mr. Obama will attend a symbolically important regional meeting of Southeast Asian nations, in which representatives of Myanmar’s government will also be present. Mr. Obama, who has made a point of his willingness to engage with adversaries, noted that for the first time an American president would be at the table with Myanmar’s military junta. But he has also called on the government to release the leader of the country’s beleaguered democracy movement, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
APEC summit meetings are not known for accomplishing much that is substantive. The most memorable moments often involve the photo opportunities, in which leaders wear colorful matching shirts. And often communiqués issued on dismantling trade barriers are undermined by the attending countries almost as soon as they are signed.
Speaking to world leaders at the APEC summit meeting Sunday morning, Mr. Obama said he would hold the 2011 gathering in Hawaii.
“The United States was there at the first meeting of APEC at Blake Island when President Clinton started the tradition of having leaders wear outfits picked out by the host nation,” Mr. Obama said. “And when America hosts APEC in a few years, I look forward to seeing you all decked out in flowered shirts and grass skirts because today I am announcing that my home state of Hawaii will be hosting this forum in 2011.”
This year’s meeting promises more of the same, complete with charges and countercharges of protectionism.
President Felipe Calderón of Mexico got things going early Saturday when he lashed out at what he called politically driven protectionism in the United States. He complained that Congressional coddling of the Teamsters had prevented the United States from opening its borders to Mexican trucks, which it was supposed to do years ago after it signed Nafta.
“Protectionism is killing North American companies,” Mr. Calderón said in Singapore. “The American government is facing political pressure that has not been counteracted.”
Mr. Obama is facing high expectations, which may be difficult to meet. For instance, while he has spoken about reducing trade barriers, he also talked during his speech in Tokyo on Saturday of making sure that the United States and Asia did not return to a cycle — which he termed “imbalanced” — in which American consumerism caused Asians to look at the United States as mainly an export market.
There are also high hopes among American companies and some Asian countries that the United States will commit to joining a regional trading group called the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Although Mr. Obama did open the door during his speech in Tokyo on Asia policy, he did not explicitly say that the United States would join the pact. A formal announcement that the United States is beginning negotiations would undoubtedly kick off criticism from free-trade opponents in the United States and pushback from Congress.
Mr. Obama spoke, instead, of “engaging the Trans-Pacific Partnership countries with the goal of shaping a regional agreement that will have broad-based membership and the high standards worthy of a 21st-century trade agreement.”
That line left many trade envoys already in Singapore scratching their heads: did Mr. Obama mean that the United States would begin formal talks to join the regional trade pact, which presently includes Singapore, Brunei and New Zealand, and could later include Vietnam — an addition that could lead to more Congressional pressure at home?
Many regional officials have been waiting for the United States to join the initiative as a demonstration that Washington will play a more active role in the region. But the Obama administration has yet to establish a firm trade policy, as it is still reviewing its options.
White House officials were not much clearer on what Mr. Obama meant when they were pressed on this after the speech. Mr. Froman, the deputy national security adviser, said that what Mr. Obama meant was that he would engage with the initiative “to see if this is something that could prove to be an important platform going further.”
Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company