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Sat 16 Jan 2010 04:00 AM

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Hangover lingers from Copenhagen climate mosh pit

Imagine that a department of motor Vehicles office joined forces with an Alitalia ticket counter and set out to save the world. That's what the United Nations climate conference in Copenhagen was like - a bureaucratic mosh pit of confusion, rumour, bad food and daylong lines leading to a toothless accord.

Hangover lingers from Copenhagen climate mosh pit

Imagine that a department of motor Vehicles office joined forces with an Alitalia ticket counter and set out to save the world. That's what the United Nations climate conference in Copenhagen was like - a bureaucratic mosh pit of confusion, rumour, bad food and daylong lines leading to a toothless accord.

Now it's the morning after, and the hangover is painful. Many are blaming Copenhagen's weak outcome on the dysfunctional UN process. For 193 nations to agree on anything this complex is simply impossible, they say. Future climate talks should include only the dozen or so countries that produce most of the emissions. The face-saving accord Barack Obama hammered out with key players Friday night is the way it will work from now on.

That may be true, yet it ignores a crucial fact: All of the parties knew going in that this conference couldn't produce a strong agreement. A truly global deal was out of reach because the US, as Obama said at the end of his gruelling 15-hour visit, "was coming with a clean slate" - America hadn't passed a bill committing itself to cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

The US has kept the world waiting 12 years for that crucial step, ever since it walked away from the Kyoto Protocol. US negotiators like to talk about the "lesson of Kyoto", which is; don't agree to anything in the UN process that they can't sell back home. It's a valid one.

But other nations have a Kyoto lesson of their own: Don't agree to anything real until the US proves it is serious by passing a climate bill of its own. America is the only developed nation that has refused to get started with binding cuts.

So what matters most about the Copenhagen Accord is this question: Does it make it more or less likely that Obama can overcome opposition to climate action and move a carbon cap through the Senate?

Fence-sitting senators are worried that a US climate bill would ship jobs to China, so Obama's marathon talks were focused on winning concessions from premier Wen Jiabao. Now the race is on in Washington to spin the result. Let's look at what Obama got, and what he didn't get.

There was never a chance that China would commit to binding reductions at this conference. Years ago, the UN talks that led to the Kyoto Protocol let China and other developing nations off the hook for those. That is Kyoto's original sin and a main reason the US walked away from it, consigning the treaty to failure.

Since then the challenge has been to draw China toward a deal so the US would finally act, thus helping to get China fully onboard. And in Copenhagen, for the first time ever, China, India, and other major developing countries pledged to take voluntary steps to curb global-warming pollution - the most that can be expected of them until the US passes a climate bill.

That constitutes progress, but since fence-sitting senators don't trust China to make good on its promises, the bone of contention between Obama and Wen was whether China would submit to independent monitoring, reporting and verification (MRV). And as Obama tried to cut a deal on MRV, Wen snubbed him, sending underlings to two sit-downs with the president.

China obstructed in other areas, as well, even vetoing deep cuts by developed nations, lest it one day be subject to them. Obama had to crash a meeting with Wen and the leaders of Brazil, India and South Africa to reach the final deal.

In that deal, China budged a little. It agreed to full MRV for emissions reductions paid for by others, but not for measures it will be making on its own. Those voluntary moves will be subject to China's own reporting and verification, "with provisions for international consultations and analysis".

China agreed to give outsiders a peek, in other words, but its promise is so vague it will reassure only senators who want to be reassured. Obama knew all of this going in. He baked his cake last summer, when he decided to push healthcare reform and not the climate bill. He chose not to mount a full-scale public education campaign on climate science and solutions to counter the choir of skeptics. That decision ruled out the possibility of a triumph in Copenhagen.

So we are where we were: waiting for president Obama to lead the charge in the Senate. A majority of Americans want to see a climate bill passed, but support has slipped thanks to the hacked e-mails known as Climategate - the latest phony "proof" that global warming, in spite of mountains of evidence, isn't really happening.

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 US economy, not strangle it. Until he does that, rush hour diplomacy - in Copenhagen or on Pennsylvania Avenue - simply won't be enough.

Eric Pooley is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

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