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Opinion: Still hope for Copenhagen summit

With the US lagging, climate talks in Copenhagen may be destined to fail. But some hold out hope.

A seagull flies above the 10,000 people taking part in the filming of "The big ask again" a film aimed at raising the climate change issues to be discussed at the upcoming Copenhagen Summit. (Sebastien Pirlet/Reuters)

COPENHAGEN, Denmark — At a press conference in the Danish capital of Copenhagen last weekend, Graham Stuart, a British parliamentarian, sat as the moderator. To his left was Wang Guangtao, chairman of the Chinese congress’ environmental committee. On his right lay an empty seat and a miniature American flag.

“Funnily enough,” said Stuart, “in a climate negotiation, we appear to be waiting on America.”

The meeting in Copenhagen wasn’t a case of real deal-making. That’ll come in December, when negotiators meet in an attempt to craft a successor to the Kyoto protocol. But Graham’s quip reflected a greater truth. When it comes to the fight against climate change, the world is still waiting on the United States.

U.S. Congressman Ed Markey (D-Mass.), the man who eventually took the empty seat, has done as much as anybody in America to turn that around. This summer, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill he co-sponsored that committed the country to significant cuts in emissions.

“Historically, the United States and China have been the excuse for why other countries haven’t acted,” said Markey. “This year we want to be leaders, not laggards.”

But the effort hasn’t been enough. A Senate committee kicked off debate on its version of the bill just this week. If the legislation isn’t passed in the next month and a half — and it almost certainly won’t be — the global summit in Copenhagen is unlikely to produce an agreement.

When President Barack Obama took office in February, there had been a hope that he would have been presented with a climate bill to sign before the global summit in December. With legislation in hand, U.S. negotiators would have had a chance of convincing developing countries to commit to limiting their greenhouse gas emissions.

Instead, the climate talks seem set to fail for much the same reason the Kyoto Protocol did. Developing countries will insist that rich nations — by virtue of the wealth, per-capita emissions and historical responsibility — be responsible for fighting climate change.

The industrialized world will respond that it can’t do it alone. And the U.S. Senate will refuse to ratify a treaty that doesn’t require China and India to limit the growth of their emissions.

“Clearly, at the current pace, we will not make it within the next two months,” said Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen, who will be hosting the summit in December.