President enters fray in Denmark

President Barack Obama will arrive in Copenhagen, Denmark, on Friday for the culmination of a climate change summit that has captured the world’s attention.

Obama has made overhauling the U.S. climate and energy economy a signature issue for his presidency, but needs an international agreement to boost legislation through a recalcitrant Congress focused on jobless constituents and the 2010 midterm elections.

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“We want something that works for both the international community but also ... what works for the United States,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Thursday afternoon. “We think the elements are there to reach that agreement.”

Obama will land in Copenhagen on Friday morning and will deliver brief remarks along with several other leaders, a senior administration official said. Later, he will take part in an official photo with other heads of state and then attend the afternoon plenary session.

The White House on Thursday evening said Obama would hold bilateral meetings with several heads of state on Friday. First up is Danish Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen, and later Obama will meet with Premier Wen Jiabao of China. Other bilateral meetings will be held with President Lula da Silva of Brazil and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, the White House stated.

Progress in Denmark could dictate how far Obama will go toward enacting complex and controversial plans to reshape the way the country produces and uses energy. Battle lines already have been drawn over whether the legislation will spark the creation of thousands of new “green” jobs or impose burdens on industry that will exacerbate economic hardships.

“I don’t think the president has ever been under any illusion that this was going to be easy, but at the same time we’re not going there just to get an agreement for the sake of something that’s called an agreement,” Gibbs said Thursday.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did her best Thursday to prevent Obama from coming home empty-handed, vowing that the U.S. would work with other rich nations to create a fund of $100 billion annually by 2020 to help developing nations adapt to climate change.

Hours later, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), leading a congressional delegation to the talks, said House Democrats were prepared to back up the plans — Pelosi noted international climate finance mechanisms already in the climate bill the House approved over the summer.

“We are fully prepared to be able to meet the commitment of the United States,” Pelosi said at a press conference, flanked by Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and five Democratic committee chairmen.

But both the House delegation and reactions to U.S. finance pledges illustrate Obama’s tough road ahead.

Rep. Sandy Levin (D-Mich.), a senior member of the Ways and Means Committee, issued a warning that any climate agreement must leave space for the U.S. to impose border adjustments — or “carbon tariffs” — on energy-intensive imports from countries that do not require strong emissions curbs.

“He is working to ensure that climate change negotiations will result in a global solution to this global problem and will not unfairly disadvantage U.S. industry and workers,” Levin’s office said in announcing his participation in the delegation. But such tariffs face opposition from China.

Since it began last week, the summit has been marked by a stand-off between the U.S. and China — the world’s top two polluters and greatest economic powers –over whether China will open its emissions pledges to outside verification. China has also joined developing countries in demanding that the U.S. and other industrialized nations provide generous support for poor countries, though China insists it would not take money from itself.

U.S. pledges of aid to developing nations has pitfalls at home, particularly given record-breaking deficits and 10 percent unemployment.

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Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) earlier this week pounced on a pledge by the U.S. delegation to steer $1 billion into fighting deforestation.

“If the Obama administration believes it has $1 billion to spare, why is it choosing to spend this money on forests in other countries instead of resolving problems at home?” he said in a statement Wednesday.

The political fight in Washington over climate change also has been affected by “climategate,” the debate over whether hacked e-mails showed climate scientists were working to suppress doubts about global warming.

Opponents, including skeptics like Sen. James Inhofe  (R-Okla.) who doubt that human activity is contributing to global warming, have used the e-mails as another reason to oppose climate change legislation.

The White House has dismissed the controversy, noting that thousands of scientists agree global warming in happening.

Still, the controversy has led to calls from Republicans for an investigation, and will not make it easier for Obama and Capitol Hill Democrats to enact an ambitious cap-and-trade system that requires power plants and other emitters to pay for producing greenhouse gases. Their plans also include new renewable electricity standards, energy efficiency programs, funding to deploy low-emissions coal plants and scores of other proposals.

Without an international framework that brings verifiable emissions curbs by emerging economies like China and India, opposition in Congress to Obama’s plans will become entrenched further.

“Up to this moment Obama has gotten a lot of credit from American environmentalists and the rest of the world for shifting the country’s overall position on climate change,” said E.J. Dionne, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “That was a much easier step than reaching any kind of agreement.”

 
Sam Youngman contributed to this article.