Obama's Trip to the Copenhagen Climate Conference Is a Mistake

The climate conference is symbolic, but practical measures are needed.

By and + More

Paul J. Saunders is executive director of the Nixon Center; Vaughan C. Turekian is chief international officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. They worked together on climate issues at the State Department during the George W. Bush administration.

President Barack Obama's decision to attend the United Nations climate conference in Copenhagen is a mistake. While apparently hoping to demonstrate his commitment to addressing climate change, the president is more likely to generate unrealistically high expectations for a binding global treaty. If he really wants to combat climate change, Mr. Obama should de-emphasize global negotiations and instead press for more practical steps by top greenhouse gas emitters.

While the U.N. talks are symbolically important, they are unlikely to make a major contribution to combating climate change in the foreseeable future. President Obama is simply not able to deliver the level of greenhouse gas reductions needed for a meaningful treaty. In fact, the best opportunity for significant domestic climate legislation has already passed. Next year, after the healthcare battle and recent gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey, it will be harder for any senator—especially critical moderate Democrats and Republicans—to support a strong cap-and-trade bill or any other legislation intended to reduce emissions sharply. So even if some climate legislation eventually passes, it will probably do more to salve our consciences than to save our planet.

Collecting 67 senators to ratify a treaty that commits the United States to reductions beyond whatever domestic measures may result from this process will be virtually impossible. Stolen E-mail messages suggesting that a few climate scientists "sexed up" the data and attempted to stifle alternative views won't help in the floor debate.

The administration would do better to focus on the real problem—the concentration of greenhouse gases in Earth's atmosphere—rather than the lack of a binding United Nations treaty.

As a practical matter, the world's two top greenhouse gas emitters—China and the United States—are both very reluctant to make international commitments to deep emissions reductions. This has already long undermined efforts to negotiate an international treaty and there is no reason to expect either nation to change course substantially. Their positions are driven not by lack of concern over climate change, but rather by the lack of a clearly visible way forward that satisfies their economic needs.

In fact, even if there were a binding treaty, these needs would likely make it unenforceable and therefore ineffective. As a result, compliance would be a function of technological progress that would generate economically attractive emissions reductions. With this in mind, the most direct and effective path to reductions runs through technology, not a treaty. Whether or not we are able to slow and eventually reverse the growth in greenhouse gas emissions will depend on whether or not the world's biggest economies are able to develop new energy technologies and put them quickly into wide use. Trying to encourage this process by increasing the cost of current technologies—the main goal of the cap-and-trade/binding treaty approach—is too unattractive to too many people to win widespread acceptance and can become more effective only by becoming less popular. Any strategy with this at its core will not stop climate change sufficiently quickly.

A more practical international strategy to address climate change would focus on concrete actions to promote existing low-carbon technologies, such as nuclear power, and developing and widely disseminating new energy technologies by creating greater incentives and coordinating national efforts more closely. This could include bold ideas, like an international research and development investment fund that would share intellectual property rights among among participating governments and private sector entities. Combined with politically acceptable domestic policies to limit emissions—which will vary from country to country—such an international approach to technology offers the most promising way to have real impact on global emissions.