Copenhagen, at least in winter, has a grim air -- I remember the Ferris wheel at Tivoli Garden kept spinning throughout last December's U.N. climate summit, but the windchill factor seemed discouraging. In a season for hunkering down, the damp squib of an outcome fit the mood. Cancún, where the next U.N. climate summit starts on Nov. 29, has a slightly different feel -- "a margarita for the delegate from Denmark, senora!" -- but drinks and sunshine won't be enough to lift the mood.
Careful observers may recall that last year's conference was weighed down by the fact that the U.S. Senate had failed to act on a climate-change bill. President Barack Obama was then promising very modest carbon reductions -- 4 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 -- and he refused to go along with the better proposals coming from Europe and parts of the developing world on the premise that tough targets would be dead on arrival in the Senate. "We're very, very mindful of the importance of our domestic legislation," his chief negotiator Todd Stern said at the time. "That's a core principle for me and everyone else working on this. You can't jeopardize that."
Or, as it turns out, you can. In the event, the president decided not to commit any real political capital to the climate bill, so it died an inglorious death in the Senate in midsummer -- Majority Leader Harry Reid wouldn't even bring it up for a vote, so ugly was the whip count. So: Copenhagen flopped because the administration was waiting for the Senate, the Senate decided not to act, and now the new Senate has lots more Republicans plus one Democrat (Joe Manchin of West Virginia) whose campaign commercial showed him shooting the climate bill with a deer rifle. I suspect Obama will not be flying in for this year's conference.
In fact, I suspect it will be mostly holding pattern and very little landing in Mexico this December. The fundamental problem that has always dogged these talks -- a rich north that won't give up its fossil-fuel addiction, a poor south that can't give up its hope of fossil-fueled development -- has, if anything, gotten worse, mostly because the north has decided to think of itself as poor, too or at least not able to devote resources to changing our climate course.