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Gaming Out The Global Climate Talks

Over at Grist, David Roberts has a terrific piece laying out all the diplomatic pirouettes and triple axels Obama will have to perform in the next six months to negotiate a global climate treaty. All signs suggest Obama isn't just relying on the U.N. process, but is also trying to hash out bilateral side deals with countries like China and Japan in the months leading up to December's big Copenhagen meeting. Here's David's conclusion:

If all goes well—an enormous if, of course—the U.S. negotiating team arrive at Copenhagen with a web of bi- and multi-lateral side deals on clean energy technology sharing, adaptation research, development assistance, trade deals, and more. The world’s biggest polluters will arrive with agreements in hand. Developing countries will see signs of real movement on the part of developed nations and soften their rigid opposition to targets.

And out of it all will come a stronger, more robust climate treaty, scaffolded by the self-interest of the many countries invested in side deals premised on continued international action.

There's also the ever-lurking domestic question of whether Congress will approve—or at least make considerable headway on—a climate bill in the coming months. Obviously, the United States can't avert global warming on its own. As Republicans never tire of interjecting, if we put a cap on our carbon emissions but no other country follows, it won't make much of a dent. True enough. Yet, as Ryan Avent argues, if the United States starts leading, it will affect what other countries do. Here's evidence from Reuters that the passage of Waxman-Markey is already having a tangible impact:

Australia's emissions trading laws look more likely to pass a hostile Senate after U.S. Congressional support for a similar climate bill eroded political opposition in Australia to carbon trading.

Ryan also paraphrases David King, Britain's former chief science adviser, who says that other countries used to prefer to do nothing and hide behind the United States—an option that now looks less feasible. Canada, for instance, has officially replaced the United States as the worst slacker among G8 nations when it comes to climate policy—we'll see if that new and dubious distinction animates Ottawa in any way.

On the other hand, climate-policy expert Terry Tamminen, who has advised Arnold Schwarzenegger and Charlie Crist among others, said something interesting in an interview with Solve Climate's David Sassoon the other day. Tamminen mentioned that if the Senate passes a (watered-down) climate bill before the Copenhagen talks, that could actually weaken the U.S. negotiating position, since it would implicitly set a ceiling on what the United States will do. It also might be easier to get a climate bill through the Senate if Obama can first get developing countries like China and India to agree to coordinated efforts—since that would knock out a key Republican talking point. Either way, lots of moving parts to consider.

(Flickr photo credit: Greenpeace)

--Bradford Plumer