Analysis: Time grows short for climate deal

Analysis: Time grows short for climate deal (AP)
President Barack Obama addresses the Summit on Climate Change at the United Nations Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2009. (AP Photo/Konishi Taro, Japan Pool)

(AP) -- The man from the middle of the Indian Ocean, from one of the tiniest of nations, told his fellow presidents he knew "you are not really listening."

But a desperate Mohammed Nasheed of the Maldives, a scattering of islands amid the rising seas of global warming, took to the podium nonetheless at Tuesday's U.N. climate summit to urge his global neighbors, after "20 years of complacency," to "seize the historic opportunity that sits at the end of the road to Copenhagen."

That opportunity in Copenhagen, at a pivotal negotiating conference this December, is a chance to forge a comprehensive new accord to combat . But increasingly Nasheed's road seems likely to stretch beyond the Danish capital, and beyond 2009, as world governments grapple with this immensely complex and volatile issue.

Some 100 heads of state and government took part in the one-day summit, the largest ever to deal with global warming.

They heard from Nasheed and leaders of other states threatened with flooding, drought and other expected impacts of a warming world. "If things go as usual, we will not live. We will die," the Maldivian said of his low-lying islands, a nation of 300,000 people.

Summit participants heard, too, from U.S. President and leaders of other industrialized nations, who spoke of their determination to take new steps to halt climate change.

But with a mere 76 days to go before the Copenhagen meeting, it appeared an interim agreement might be the most that can be expected this December, leaving difficult details for later talks.

Tuesday's gathering was the latest effort in a long, cumbersome process dating back to the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, when national leaders signed on to something unprecedented, a treaty committing them to work "to protect the for present and future generations."

Scientists had produced persuasive evidence that the carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases that industry, transport and farming were pouring into the atmosphere were trapping heat and raising global temperatures, with potentially damaging effects from a changing climate.

Five years after Rio, negotiators added the Kyoto Protocol to the treaty, with its first, modest reductions in emissions by industrialized countries. The U.S. Senate repudiated the pact, however, and the process entered an eight-year slowdown as the U.S. administration of President George W. Bush resisted global pressure for deeper concerted action.

The U.S. opponents complained emissions reductions would crimp the American economy, and objected to Kyoto's excusing of China, India and other poorer countries from having to reduce their energy use.

As the diplomacy decelerated, climate change accelerated.

Average global temperatures had risen 0.74 degrees C (1 degree F) over the past century. The pace of sea-level rise, from heat expansion and melting land ice, increased in the late 20th century. And just last week, scientists reported that one of recorded history's greatest losses of Arctic sea ice to summer melt occurred this year. Scientific forecasts are growing ever more bleak.

While waiting for change in Washington, diplomats in 2007 set a two-year timetable for replacing the Kyoto pact, which expires in 2012, aiming at a new overall deal at the annual U.N. climate conference this December. The election of Obama, who pledged U.S. action, put new life in the process. But time was working against that timetable.

The House of Representatives in June did pass the first U.S. legislation to cap carbon emissions. The Senate, however, embroiled in the U.S. health care debate, delayed addressing the issue. Without U.S. domestic action, the rest of the world isn't likely to commit to an overall, detailed post-Kyoto accord.

Instead, it appeared increasingly that Copenhagen, at best, may produce a framework for further talks, while pieces fall into place in Washington and elsewhere, and Kyoto's formulas are perhaps extended.

Such a Copenhagen plan might set an aggregate goal for emissions reductions by richer countries, with 2020 and 2050 targets, and envision "policy-based" commitments by China and other developing countries - for example, not reducing emissions directly, but reducing "carbon intensity," or fossil-fuel use per unit of economic growth.

Depending on how well the world is rebounding from the current economic slump, richer nations might also declare their readiness to boost financial support for developing countries to switch to clean energy technologies, and to adapt to climate change's impact on their crops, their shorelines and their economic lives.

At Tuesday's summit and earlier, China, India, Brazil and other developing nations indicated they're prepared to take such steps. The Europeans and Japan's new government, meanwhile, say they'll deepen their emissions cuts. And the Americans, 17 years after Rio, may be prepared to adopt their own reductions.

But December looks too close, and the issues look too complex, for it all to mesh into a single sweeping deal in Copenhagen.

Tuesday's summit was a "step in the right direction," said Danish Prime Minister Lars Loekke Rasmussen, who will host the world in December. "And yet we are still far from a solution."

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