17 years later, a promise to fulfill

The good news is that those days are gone. Just as in Rio, an American president is traveling to the Copenhagen talks in good faith — this time, to put his prestige on the line, promise a new beginning and recommit our country to being part of a global solution.

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Seventeen years is a long time in search of a solution. But seemingly intractable problems seldom submit to quick and easy answers. Consider the hundreds of years of struggle in Northern Ireland, and all those who said peace would never come. At the moment when peace was sparked, Sen. George Mitchell, who helped bridge those divides, said simply: “We had 700 days of failure and one day of success.”

That’s why leaders are gathering in Copenhagen — because with one agreement, we can put the world on a safer path. We can and must start a new chapter that leads us to success. 

Yes, the road has been harder than we hoped. But the 12 months since leaders gathered in Poznan have seen a series of successes that together add up to a changed world: firm commitments from China, India and Brazil; a climate bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives and two Senate committees; and an American president committed to lead.  

Yes, the healthcare debate at home has delayed the calendar for us on climate change. But we should not lose sight of three major steps the Obama administration has taken. First, President Obama’s announcement that the United States’s opening negotiating position is a 17 percent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions below 2005 levels by 2020 is an important step to getting other large emitters on board by showing that the United States will do its part. Second, the United States has rightly focused on China’s role in global climate change, and as a result, China recently announced a reduction target in carbon intensity of 40 to 45 percent by 2020 on the heels of President Obama’s trip there and his announcement of an emissions target.

The United States and China also signed a raft of agreements on clean energy cooperation, including shale gas, clean coal and electric vehicles. The agreements between the U.S. and China pave the way for cooperation with other countries such as India. Third, the EPA’s endangerment finding — in response to the Supreme Court’s decision establishing CO2 is a pollutant — makes clear the administration’s position that greenhouse gases endanger human health; it’s a warning shot that action will be taken, preferably by legislation, but if necessary by regulation under existing Clean Air Act authorities.

Do we still have our differences with other countries on climate change? Of course. But 60 heads of state aren’t traveling to Denmark in the dead of winter to make excuses. They are going to make a commitment, and for the first time in a decade, a global breakthrough is within our reach.  

What can we accomplish in Copenhagen? Countries of the world need to leave Copenhagen more convinced that a deal is doable and more committed to building momentum, building trust, and creating a virtuous circle where every nation’s new commitments empower others to go further. 

It’s true we are not agreeing to hard caps in Copenhagen. But this can still be a watershed moment if we come home with a comprehensive political agreement at the highest level, with demonstrable progress on targets and timetables, verification, financing, and a process for coming back together to take these promises and make them legally binding.

And the place where the results in Copenhagen may reverberate the loudest is the United States Senate. Some headlines have suggested that climate change legislation in the Senate is in peril, but we have come a long way on this issue and we’ve done so in an astoundingly short time, at least by Washington standards. Every day in the Senate I’m meeting with colleagues to find the path forward to 60 votes to pass a comprehensive climate and energy reform bill. Sen. Lindsey Graham, a conservative Republican from South Carolina, has shown enormous leadership. And Sen. Robert Byrd, the longest-serving member of Congress ever, and author of the 1998 Byrd-Hagel amendment many associate with the death of the Kyoto Protocol, wrote just this month, “To deny the mounting science of climate change is to stick our heads in the sand and say, ‘Deal me out.’ West Virginia would be much smarter to stay at the table.”

Copenhagen is so important because it offers an answer to the question we hear from so many senators: “If I cast this vote, and we reduce our emissions, where’s the guarantee that other countries will act too?” President Obama has defined a path to an international agreement that challenges the developed and developing nations of the world to fulfill their obligations; it is an important counter to those on the fence at home who believe that the United States shouldn’t act if other countries won’t join with us.

Copenhagen is not the end of the long march toward a climate change solution. But it can be the end of the beginning, and the place where a new consensus for global cooperation made it possible for a verifiable treaty to be ratified in the Senate. We make the trip with high hopes for the United States.

Kerry chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He is a member of Commerce; Finance; Science and Transportation; and Small Business.