Kerry: Copenhagen Could Change the Global Warming Debate

The Massachusetts senator says a “verifiable” agreement could have broad implications.

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Though many Senate Democrats are stuck in Washington this week for the healthcare debate, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, is in Copenhagen with U.S. negotiators for the final days of the international climate talks. Kerry, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has emerged as one of the biggest champions for action on climate change in the Senate, and last week he joined with South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham and Connecticut independent Sen. Joe Lieberman to unveil a bipartisan plan for curbing emissions. U.S. News spoke with Kerry prior to his trip about his expectations for Copenhagen and the state of climate legislation in the U.S. Excerpts:

We've heard a lot about the need for U.S. leadership in Copenhagen, especially from developing countries that say the United States isn't doing enough. What does that actually mean? How do you define whether the United States is, in fact, leading?

I think the United States is leading now, through the president and the House and the Senate. The Environment and Public Works Committee had a 20 percent [emissions] target reduction [in its climate bill]. Senator Lieberman and Senator Graham and I put out a 17 percent target as a guideline within our framework. So the House, the president, and our guidelines are all in sync. We are saying the United States is going to step up with real reduction, and we also need to contribute to some of the finance mechanisms in the short term for adaptation and technology transfer. That's leadership. We also are pushing the verification and transparency necessary to help the Senate and the House be able to look their constituents in the eye and say that we're joining other countries in this, that others are also doing this. I think that is going to be a very important component of what happens in Copenhagen.

You've been involved this year in a number of high-stakes negotiations. What role do you hope to play in Copenhagen, and what do you think you can do, personally, to bridge the differences between countries that are so far apart?

I'm going to be in bilateral meetings in the course of the days I'm there and will encourage a number of people with whom I've built a relationship over the last years to try to move on this. I think there is going to have to be a lot of personal persuasion and a lot of demonstrated initiative by our country itself, all of which can help bring people to the table, to an agreement. Everybody's got to do something, and everybody is going to have to do a little bit of something that they don't necessarily like very much. That's the only way to get a good agreement where you satisfy the interests, which is what negotiating is about.

Most of the focus is on two big issues: emission targets and money for the developing world. Which is tougher to negotiate?

I think the financing can be more complicated. Once you've decided what you can do with your target, you're there. You've got a target. The president has already put that out there. The target issue, I think, is reasonably defined. The finance piece is still in flux and yet to be defined, as is the verification component. And I think those are really central to getting an agreement.

You've recently come out with a bipartisan proposal on global warming. Was there a point this fall when you decided that you really needed to try to get Republicans onboard?

Well, there's never been a belief that we could do this without reaching across the aisle. There's always been a sense that we need to try to get as many votes as possible. We don't want to do this with a minimal number of votes. We want to do it with a maximum number of votes. We'd like to have more and more people recognize the dangers of not doing anything and embrace what we think is a very, very reasonable proposal. Ultimately, I would hope people would come to see that, as this gets better defined. Right now, with the healthcare debate, with other issues on the table, a lot of folks haven't really stopped to look at this thoroughly. I think as more people take the time to do that, if Copenhagen is successful, that will have an impact on what happens here.