SINGAPORE – President Barack Obama and other world leaders agreed today that next month’s much-anticipated climate change summit will be merely a way station, not the once-hoped-for endpoint, in the search for a worldwide global warming treaty.
The 192-nation climate conference beginning in three weeks in Copenhagen was originally intended to produce a new global climate change treaty. Hopes for that have dimmed lately. But comments by Obama and fellow leaders at a hastily arranged breakfast meeting here on the sidelines of an Asia-Pacific summit served to quash any remaining expectations for the December summit.
“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, Obama’s deputy national security adviser for international economic matters.
The prime minister of Denmark, Lars Loekke Rasmussen, the U.N.-sponsored climate conference’s chairman, flew overnight to Singapore to present a proposal to the leaders to instead make the Copenhagen goal a matter of crafting a “politically binding” agreement, in hopes of rescuing some future for the struggling process.
A fully binding legal agreement would be left to a second meeting next year in Mexico City, Froman said.
Obama backed the approach, cautioning the group not to let the “perfect be the enemy of the good,” Froman said. Addressing the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum later, Obama talked of the need to limit greenhouse-gas emissions “in Copenhagen and beyond.”
Froman said the Danish proposal would call for Copenhagen to produce “operational impact,” but he did not explain how that would work or to what it would apply.
Despite the cooperative-sounding words, the two-year process of crafting a landmark treaty has been stymied by deep distrust between rich, developed nations and poorer developing nations such as India, Brazil and China.
The developed nations hold that all countries must agree to legally binding targets to reduce heat-trapping gases. Developing countries say they can make reductions a goal but not a requirement, and they want more money from wealthy nations to help them make the transition.
A major bill dealing with energy and climate in the U.S., a domestic priority of Obama’s, is bogged down in the U.S. Senate with scant hope it would be completed by next month, giving the American president little to show in Copenhagen.
Between that and the developments in Singapore, there may be little reason for Obama to travel there. White House aides had been saying privately that the outcome of talks during Obama’s weeklong Asia trip, including a three-day visit to China that starts tonight, would help determine whether Obama might go to Copenhagen.
Obama arrived late Saturday in Singapore for the annual 21-nation APEC summit that began without him early that morning. In remarks to the group today, Obama reached out by announcing that he would host the 2011 gathering in his native Hawaii.
But on trade – the subject of most interest to rapidly growing, commerce-happy East and Southeast Asia – Obama had a good-news, bad-news message. He said the U.S. would engage with nations in a trans-Pacific free-trade partnership to shape a new regional agreement, a move seen as crucial to creating a possible Asia-Pacific free-trade zone.
But he said the pact must have broad-based membership and “the high standards worthy of a 21st-century trade agreement.” He also sounded a sterner note, cautioning that Asia’s export-led growth must give way to more balanced strategies.
His chief focus, though, was more on side meetings, including one later today with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev where he hoped to nudge forward a major new arms-control pact. The two nations are in talks on a successor to a Cold War-era agreement that expires in December.
The president planned another milestone: joining a larger meeting of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations that includes the leader of military-ruled Myanmar, also known as Burma. Obama is sure to face criticism at home, particularly from conservatives, for doing so. It marks a significant step in his administration’s policy of “pragmatic engagement,” which is a shift from years of U.S. isolation and sanctions. A U.S. president has never met with a leader of the Burmese junta, one of the world’s worst human-rights offenders.
Despite the new engagement, the Obama administration has said sanctions will not be lifted unless Myanmar’s rulers make democratic progress. Obama aides and Asia experts have defended the administration’s new gamble, while admitting it may not succeed.
“One definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over and expect a different outcome,” said Jeffrey Bader, Obama’s top Asia adviser.