International expectations are high for President Obama and Congress to bring a strong U.S. negotiating position to the U.N. climate talks in Copenhagen this December.
But there are big questions about how much U.S. leaders might be able to deliver.
"I think neither the calendar nor the economy is our friend right now," Carlos Pascual, vice president and director of foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, said today during a Washington panel on the Copenhagen talks.
Pascual, a former U.S. diplomat, urged foreign leaders to be mindful of the complexities on Capitol Hill as Democratic lawmakers and Obama try to write a new global warming law that puts a price tag on greenhouse gas emissions.
"I'm absolutely confident that we're eventually going to get to a new regime on climate change," he said. "I don't know if we're going to get there by Copenhagen."
And Pascual suggested a two-tiered negotiation track focusing in Copenhagen on low-carbon technologies, finance and adaptation while saving some of the key emission reduction goals for later meetings.
"One thing I strongly ask, or just to think about, is that we begin to think about Copenhagen as not a conclusion to the process, but as a launching plank for a new era of how we deal with climate change and environmental issues and how we deal with these questions," he said. "Because they will not be finished there. Anything we do will not be finished. Technology will change. Economics factors will change. We will continually need to revise this, and we'll need to think about this issue differently."
Should world leaders press Obama to commit beyond his reach, Pascual warned of a total collapse in the climate talks.
"The worst-case scenario in Copenhagen is we finally have the United States that's interested and engaged on this issue, and we come there, and boom, we have this clash and we go in opposite directions and we actually destroy the momentum for change," he said. "That's the worst-case scenario."
Would 2010 be different?
Suffice it to say, Pascual's message did not please the top U.N. official overseeing global warming negotiations or the host of this year's climate conference in Denmark. Both men were seated right next to him.
"You can't go to Copenhagen with mumbles," countered Yvo de Boer, the executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. "There has to be a clear answer. There has to be a clear way forward. There has to be a clear commitment to emission reduction targets on the part of industrialized countries."
De Boer, a former Dutch climate diplomat, insisted Obama could make progress in Copenhagen even without a final piece of climate legislation in hand. In turn, the U.N. official maintained, such a move would help the U.S. president pick up support on Capitol Hill once China, India and other emerging economies sign off on the new agreement.
"Wouldn't it be easier to get legislation adopted in this country if you can show, black on white, that industrialized countries and major developing countries had made a commitment or if that situation is unclear?" de Boer said.
In 1997, climate negotiators did not have their own laws in place as they crafted the emission limits spelled out during talks in Kyoto, Japan.