Barack Obama has always liked to see himself as a fourth-quarter player—someone who could raise his game close to the buzzer, even if that meant taking a bigger risk than his teammates might like.
But time is running out for the clutch player to win in Copenhagen, where the U.N.’s climate talks have grown increasingly deadlocked over the last several days.
Initially the president planned to travel to Copenhagen, the scene of his Olympic fiasco in November, at the start of the climate negotiations—back when they still called the Danish capital Hopenhagen. Now Obama’s decision to show up at the end of the talks, with the other world leaders, has only raised the pressure on him—and his counterparts—to save the entire process from what has become a global blame game.
Click Below to Watch a Clip of Obama’s Copenhagen Speech
Administration officials say they have a few cards yet to play that might help change the course of events at the summit. But even the most optimistic members of Obama’s team have lowered their ambitions. At this point, there’s talk of a face-saving deal that could, conditions permitting, one day grow into an international agreement to limit greenhouse-gas emissions in a meaningful way. That’s a long way from the inflated hopes the administration had a month ago, when the president closed out his Asia trip with positive signals from China and India that a more meaningful accord could be in the offing.
• Lloyd Grove: Crashing the Climate Party • Rebecca Dana: ‘Style’ at the Climate Summit • Speed Read on Copenhagen The stakes are sky high. For the White House, returning twice from Copenhagen empty-handed would represent more than an embarrassment. It would mean the short-term failure of several months of personal diplomacy on climate change, starting with Obama's chairmanship of a high-profile session at the G-8 in Italy, and continuing with many rounds of one-on-one talks with world leaders. Obama started his stump speech at almost every campaign event with a warning about the polar ice caps melting, and the collapse of Copenhagen would mean far more melted ice before any alternative deal could take its place.
Among White House officials, there was a distinct wariness about the trip late this week, along with efforts to lower the bar to redefine success.
Copenhagen was just the start, not the end, of the process of limiting climate change, they argued. And Obama's leadership remained a stark contrast to the non-participation and obstructionism of the Bush era.
But at this stage, how could meaningful change still happen? What could change the game?
First, the sway of senior figures, after the low-level wrangling of the last several days. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived Thursday with the announcement of vastly larger sums of money to help the developing world deal with climate change. Clinton pledged the U.S. would help raise $100 billion a year by 2020, as long as a meaningful deal could be reached in Copenhagen.
That alone is a significant leap from the White House announcement two weeks ago of a deal to offer $10 billion a year by 2012. The ten-fold increase represents the most tangible effort to halt the repeated disruptions by the so-called G77 countries of the developing world—a grouping led by Sudan, which has seized its chance to strike back at the Western critics of its genocide in Darfur. Sudan is not alone: It has enjoyed assists from anti-Western agitators such as Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Evo Morales of Bolivia, as well as the big oilmen of Saudi Arabia.
Second, the arrival of world leaders, especially the president, with a new Nobel Peace Prize in his pocket. Obama’s aides believed their boss had negotiated the framework for a deal with the Chinese leadership on his Asian trip last month. That resulted in China’s latest offer to slow the growth of carbon emissions, relative to its own economic growth, by 40-45% below 2005 levels.
But as Obama arrives, the dynamic has shifted; at this point, the name of the game recalls Ronald Reagan’s admonition about negotiating nukes with the Soviets: trust but verify. To U.S. officials, China’s refusal to allow a verification regime threatens to reduce the Copenhagen process to a series of empty press releases trumpeting carbon-emissions reductions. The administration’s response is to wield a thinly veiled threat that Congress (as well as the European Union) could respond with trade barriers against the naysayers in the new round of energy and climate legislation. The idea behind the new taxes would be to level the playing field with countries that do not pay for the higher costs of a lower-carbon economy. It remains unclear whether the Obama administration is ready to exert such overt pressure on China, which holds more U.S. debt than any other country. Still, the frustrations with China’s position—especially over the question of whether Beijing really wants to reach a negotiated deal—have bubbled to the surface for the first time in this administration.
American officials are puzzled over China’s motives. Is Beijing taking an obstructionist tack because of national pride? Is it a negotiating tactic, or a reasoned decision to block a deal? The last chance to salvage even a watered-down deal hinges on Obama’s ability to divine China’s true intentions when he arrives on Friday, building on his climate conversations with President Hu Jintao during and after his trip to Beijing.
Speaking to reporters in Copenhagen Thursday, Secretary Clinton signaled how the president’s gamble remains unresolved, even in the final minutes of the fourth quarter. “The president is planning to come tomorrow,” she said at a news conference. “Obviously we hope that there will be something to come for.”
Richard Wolffe is Daily Beast columnist and an award-winning journalist, and senior strategist at Public Strategies. He covered the entire length of Barack Obama's presidential campaign for Newsweek magazine. His book, Renegade: The Making of a President, was published by Crown in June.