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The Ghosts Of Clinton Haunt The Climate Debate, Too

It's not just on health care where Obama's obsessed (maybe too obsessed) with the lessons of the Clinton years. As Juliet Eilperin reports in The Washington Post today, his climate team also agonizes over the memory of 1997, when Clinton and Gore agreed to the Kyoto Protocol abroad, and then watched as the Senate cudgeled the climate treaty with a 97-0 vote:

Like most members of President Obama's climate team, David Sandalow was one of President Bill Clinton's negotiators in Kyoto. And he carries an indelible lesson from the experience of signing off on the international climate pact there 12 years ago: "Only agree abroad to what you can implement at home."

He had been elated at the deal by more than 180 nations in December 1997. But within months, a television ad appeared, decrying the agreement for not including developing nations such as China and India. "It's not global and it won't work," said the ad, which was sponsored by business groups including the American Association of Automobile Manufacturers and the American Petroleum Institute. It captured the growing discontent in the United States over the Clinton administration's signing off on a package that did not force similar cuts by major developing countries.

That political backlash is one of several reasons why any deal struck two months from now in Copenhagen will at best signal the start of a new global approach to tackling climate change, rather than its successful conclusion.

Odds are, a final, crossed-ts-dotted-is climate treaty won't get inked in Copenhagen—the process will likely poke a long for months afterward. That's partly because the United States still hasn't enacted a bill to cap carbon, and it's as yet unsettled whether such a bill will even pass. At the same time, Obama isn't going to commit abroad to mandatory greenhouse-gas reductions and then fly home and command the Senate to fall in line and pass a bill—per the Clinton lessons, that's a no-no. But then also at the same time, as Evan Bayh says, a lot of Democrats are grimacing at voting for a bill unless developing countries also commit to actions of their own. But then (you see the pattern here) developing countries are clamoring for the United States to lead. It's not, strictly speaking, impossible to navigate these shoals, but it takes a rather delicate touch on the tiller.

(Flickr photo credit: catch_22)