CopenhagenParsing of last week’s outcome of the international climate conference in Denmark began within moments of the announcement of a non-binding agreement, dubbed the Copenhagen Accord.

Was it a tragic failure to tackle the looming threat of climate change or a valuable if insufficient step toward doing just that? Proponents of both viewpoints have spoken out.

Who was responsible for the fact that a more dramatic and definitive agreement was not reached? President Barack Obama? The U.S. Congress? China? All came in for blame from different quarters.

If one thing is certain in the aftermath of the much-anticipated, closely-watched summit, it seems to be that the path ahead for multilateral action against manmade global warming is uncertain.

Will Copenhagen hurt or help the chances of climate-energy legislation in Congress, which might help lead to a binding accord to reduce greenhouse emissions? Does the conference outcome suggest that the U.N.-sponsored diplomatic process on climate change, which also produced the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, is not an adequate vehicle for dealing with the climate issue?

Such are the questions being asked as attention turned in the climate arena to what may lie ahead, especially at major diplomatic meetings scheduled in 2010.

The Copenhagen Accord set no “deadline for transforming it into a binding deal, though U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said it needed to be turned into a legally binding treaty next year,” BBC News noted.

Other key points in the BBC’s summary of the agreement:

  • Recognition of “the need to limit global temperatures rising no more than 2C (3.6F) above pre-industrial levels.”
  • A call for each country to detail by Feb. 1 its pledge for cutting greenhouse emissions by 2020. “The deal does not spell out penalties for any country that fails to meet its promise.”
  • A pledge of $30 billion in aid for developing countries over the next three years and a “goal” of “$100 billion a year by 2020 to help poor countries cope with the impacts of climate change.”
  • “Rigorous, robust and transparent” scrutiny of rich countries’ emission-cutting pledges.

Some environmentalists lambasted the agreement, while others had more positive assessments.

Bill McKibben, the environmentalist author and founder of the climate action organization, was furious at Obama, charging that in brokering the last-minute deal the president had “taken the mandate that progressives worked their hearts out to give him, and used it to gut the ideas that progressives have held most dear. The ice caps won’t be the only things we lose with this deal.”

But Carl Pope. executive director of the Sierra Club, saw things differently. He said it was “a historic – if incomplete – agreement to begin tackling global warming,” and added: “That a deal was reached at all is testament to President Obama’s leadership – all the more remarkable because of the very weak hand he was dealt because of the Senate’s failure to pass domestic clean energy and climate legislation.”

The Pew Center on Global Climate Change, which works with major corporations on finding ways to reduce greenhouse pollution, issued a statement by Elliot Diringer, its vice president for international strategies, declaring that the Copenhagen agreement “will for the first time secure political pledges from all major economies to curb their emissions. And, at the insistence of the United States, it lays the foundation for a system to hold countries accountable.  This represents real movement by China and other major developing countries.”

Britain’s climate secretary, Ed Miliband, however, “accused China, Sudan, Bolivia and other leftwing Latin American countries of trying to hijack the UN climate summit and ‘hold the world to ransom’ to prevent a deal being reached,” the Guardian reported. Miliband also called for “major reform” in the U.N. organization and process involved in climate negotiations.

The New York Times subsequently reported that a Chinese official, in an apparent  response to Miliband’s comments, suggested that Britain was trying to “shirk the obligations of developed countries to their developing counterparts and foment discord among developing countries, but the attempt was doomed to fail.”

Journalist David Roberts, staff writer of the Web-based environmentalist magazine Grist, observed that “…Copenhagen is only the first challenge in a three-part political obstacle course Obama will need to navigate to reach success on climate change. First was drawing China and India into an agreement. Next will be using the Copenhagen accord to fortify the U.S. Senate to pass a climate bill. Third will be to use that U.S. climate bill to convince (other) countries to sign on to a binding legal treaty in 2010.”

Michael A. Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations wrote that either the House-passed climate-energy bill or similar measures pending in the Senate would “easily” allow U.S. policymakers to make good on their pledge of a 17 percent cut in U.S. greenhouse emissions below 2005 levels as well as the Copenhagen Accord’s promised aid for developing countries.

He warned: “Without such a bill, though, it will be difficult to deliver the promised emissions cuts, and essentially impossible to produce the promised funding. The Obama administration took significant calculated risks by getting out ahead of Congress on both fronts.”

Reporter Coral Davenport of Congressional Quarterly’s CQ Politics wrote that the Copenhagen agreement included “two elements that are seen as critical to winning the support of senators, especially those from manufacturing states, who are worried that U.S. industry would be forced to live by rules that would give an advantage to Chinese competitors.

“First, it commits China to reining in emissions of greenhouse gases, which could help sway senators who are worried about China doing its part. Second, it requires nations to allow international verification of their carbon reduction activities, an issue about which some senators have voiced concerns.”

In a 95-0 resolution in 1997, the Senate declared that the U.S. should not accept the Kyoto treaty unless its emission-reducing mandates also applied to developing countries including China. As a result, the Clinton administration never submitted the pact for Senate ratification.

Bloomberg News columnist Eric Pooley, a former managing editor of Fortune magazine, noted that “other nations have a Kyoto lesson of their own: Don’t agree to anything real until the U.S. proves it is serious by passing a climate bill of its own. America, after all, enjoyed a century-long head start on industrialization, yet it is the only developed nation that has refused to get started with binding cuts.”

To win Senate approval of a climate-energy bill, Pooley wrote, the president must assume the role of educator-in-chief: “Obama needs to explain the realities of climate science to the American people and persuade those willing to listen that a carbon cap will help revive the U.S. economy, not strangle it. Until he does that, rush hour diplomacy – in Copenhagen or on Pennsylvania Avenue – simply won’t be enough.”

– Bill Dawson

Image credit: United Nations Climate Change Conference