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Ambassador Kmiec's Statement on the Copenhagen Conference

The Copenhagen Accord: An Important Step Forward

by Ambassador Douglas Kmiec

Earlier this week Secretary Clinton gave a major foreign policy address. Among other things, she outlined that the way forward in many areas of diplomacy was going to be shaped by what she called "principled pragmatism.” It appears that the Secretary’s new approach to diplomacy is an application of the patented Obama approach: know what matters in terms of the relevant principle, listen to one's opposition with respect, identify where there is common ground that will move the discussion in favor of a tangible objective consistent with the principle, and then, practically reach the best possible agreement, always honestly signaling that the agreement reached is but the beginning of a relationship, and not the conclusion of one.

Obama came to Copenhagen thinking the Danish prime minister had articulated a framework for political and immediately operative steps toward addressing climate change, and found the discussion had bogged down over ultimate numbers in terms of hundreds of billions of dollars of mitigation that would be desirable for developing countries to have, but that no developed country could pony up now given the economic circumstances world and some last minute concerns with verifiability in China.

Those wishing to rectify the serious imbalances between the "haves and have nots" know that more mitigation will be needed than that which was currently on hand, but to simply bemoan the fact would be to sacrifice the chance to address present need simply because there might be greater needs in the future. Similarly, while perfect verification would be desirable on the part of all nations, if there is no agreement whatsoever the discussion about their verifiability is altogether moot.

So it turns out that “principled pragmatism” is a page taken right out of the Obama general approach: listen carefully to the opposition, find out what cannot presently be the basis for agreement, but be very careful at the same time to identify a common ground that in many cases is hidden by the initial noise of disagreement over important, but peripheral matters. This is how Barack Obama ran his political campaign which I saw firsthand and participated in; it's how he secured a multibillion-dollar stimulus program that is now stabilizing the US economy; and it is how President Obama is closer to meaningful health care reform than any prior administration. The president effectively took hold of a Copenhagen summit that seemed on the brink of disaster because of a focus on important, but secondary, matters and reoriented that discussion toward environmental essentials.

Obama is clearly not his predecessor, who seemed to lack needed ability to reconfigure a game plan when the one planned in the Oval Office simply wasn't working. Contrary to the all or nothing, you're either on our side against us, previous mentality, the Obama method involves continuous study and reconfiguration of strategy in order to lead to practical judgment. Older forms of diplomacy would have likely led to stalemate, with both sides posturing and neither side committing. This is what was occurring between the developed and developing nations before the president's arrival. Even some of the US bargainers seemed more transfixed by China's unwillingness to verify its promised reductions over its still increasing rate of emission than in finding common ground whereby China would commit to making an environmentally sensitive promise closer to that of developed nations than emerging ones. In other words, pigheadedness about measuring standards was causing negotiators to lose sight of the fact that China, at least in announced intention, was signaling a move closer to US and EU standards rather than that of a Third World nation.

What is emerging from Copenhagen is an agreement hammered into existence by the presidential art of the possible; by presidential dedication to the complete environmental ethic of the inescapable consequences of climate change, but also presidential effort that lives in the realities of the moment. The president entered the negotiation at a time when there were significant differences between countries, recognized that they could not be totally bridged, but also recognized that part of the bridge of common ground was already under construction – specifically that developed and developing countries have now agreed to list their national actions and commitments, provide a finance mechanism, and most saliently, to set a mitigation target of 2 degrees Celsius. Moreover, verification would be inescapable, since to borrow a phrase from the 60s, “the whole world would be watching,” and all nations would be obligated to provide information on the implementation of their actions through national communications, with provisions for international consultations and analysis under clearly defined guidelines.

As President Obama said at the conclusion of the summit, if the countries had waited to reach a full, binding and comprehensive agreement, “there might be such frustration and cynicism that rather than taking one step forward we ended up taking two steps back.”

The essence of the Copenhagen agreement calls for some of the largest greenhouse producers – China, the U.S., Brazil, India and South Africa – along with all participating countries, to list specific actions they have taken to control emissions and the commitments they are willing to make to achieve deeper reductions. There is also a method for verifying reductions of heat-trapping gases.

Environmental perfection? Not yet. A genuine, tangible step toward environmental sanity? “Yes, we can!”