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.

"All of them used the Kyoto outcome, and the instruments created there, to approve their domestic policies," de Boer said. "I'm very enthused by the conversations I've had here and the enormous sense of urgency to get legislation adopted. I think that actually a strong result in Copenhagen might make it easier to get that legislation passed."

Pascual's call for some additional wiggle room also drew a rebuke from Connie Hedegaard, Denmark's minister for climate and energy.

"I must say I'm very concerned if we miss this opportunity," Hedegaard said. "Who would believe that things are easier in '10? Or '11? Who would believe if we close this window of opportunity, that there will be a new opportunity? I'm not sure there will."

Hedegaard, who met yesterday with key House and Senate lawmakers involved in the climate debate, said she wanted the United States to adopt a cap-and-trade program that would then link up with the European Union's system through bilateral agreements.

Brown calls for 'historic agreement'

Foreign leaders have poured into Washington this week to meet with Obama and members of Congress on the global economic meltdown, climate change and other pressing issues.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown met with Obama yesterday to discuss next month's Group of 20 summit in London, which will focus on the economy. And in a speech today before a joint session of Congress, Brown tried to make the case for action on climate change with a very diplomatic message.

"I believe that you, the nation that had the vision to put a man on the moon, are also the nation with the vision to protect and preserve our planet Earth," Brown said. "And it is only by investing in environmental technology that we can end the dictatorship of oil, and it is only by tackling climate change that we create the millions of new green jobs we need."

Brown also stressed that the climate crisis "cannot just wait for tomorrow today" while linking the economic recovery to climate change.

"Let us work together for a low-carbon recovery worldwide," Brown said. "And I am confident that this president, this Congress and the peoples of the world can come together in Copenhagen this December to reach a historic agreement on climate change."

Also in Washington, Poland's climate ambassador, Janusz Reiter, said the Obama administration has added new momentum to the negotiations. "Unlike in last year, no one will have the suspicion that the U.S. administration has a hidden agenda and is trying to undermine the UNFCC process," he said. "It is not. If they come up with ideas that make the process more flexible, I think we can only welcome that."

Obama and Democratic leaders this week have stressed their plans to push for a climate law in time for Copenhagen.

"If that can happen, and I certainly hope that it could, I think that would be great," Todd Stern, the State Department's top climate envoy, said yesterday. "Because I think it's a long time now that countries have been looking for the United States to lead and take action. Not just the previous administration, but the administration before that. I think nothing would give a more powerful signal to other countries in the world than to see a significant major mandatory American plan. That we've gotten past the state that we've gotten close to, but not gotten done."

Waxman considers timing

House Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) acknowledged in an interview that he would give thought to the argument that it is not in the United States' interest to finish a global warming law in time for Copenhagen.

"That's an interesting point," Waxman said. "But I think what we heard most importantly from the two people that briefed us this morning [Denmark's Hedegaard and Britain's environmental chief, Ed Miliband] is that by Copenhagen, they want to know we're stepping up to the plate, to do things to reduce the carbon emissions. They didn't feel we actually had to have the law in place, although I think there's a lot to say for that."

Jennifer Morgan, an environmentalist with the London-based climate think tank E3G, said Obama faces many challenges ahead as the United States enters into the formal U.N. negotiations. She recalled the pointed rebukes of the Bush administration during the closing hours of the 2007 U.N. climate conference in Bali, Indonesia, when officials from South Africa and Papua New Guinea called out the Untied States for blocking action on an agreement.

"For me, that just shows countries are ready to name other countries and to take them on," Morgan said. "The Obama administration needs to be ready for that. There are great expectations for what they're going to do. They need to play up to those. And with a smart science-based way. The stakes are high, and people are going to be ready to play out the last days in Bali in Copenhagen. That's for sure."

Reprinted from Greenwire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500