COPENHAGEN — The world is aghast. Its fate, it seems, “lies in the hands of a few U.S. Senators,” as Ian Fry lamented in his plea to the Climate Summit to do a real, science-driven deal here in Copenhagen.
The collective forehead of humanity is wrinkled up at the prospect. Who are these people? A couple of them from North Dakota, representing 600,000 people (about 9% of the population of Mumbai’s slums), can prevent the world from rising to an emergency? A thought bubble floats above the Bella Center: U.S. Congress: WTF?
A Japanese woman GRILLED me last night, in English far superior to my Japanese but still very broken, about the intricacies of the U.S. Congress: How do you elect them? Why do some of them represent so many and some so few? Does it really take six months for them to do anything? Where IS North Dakota?
The Obama team has been here in force, with Cabinet secretaries speaking every day to demonstrate American resolve. Mayors and Governors and NGOs and businesses from the U.S. are all over Copenhagen, showing the world a genuine, engaged face of America. Senator Kerry gave a good speech yesterday, full of resolve. But the world knows that the U.S. Senate stands in the way. Their eyes say to the Americans in the building “How could you let this go on?”
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As frustrated as the world may be about Congress’ failure to deliver a real American commitment here, those of us who worked our keisters off to get a bill done before we got here are among the most agitated. We feel like idiots. We are soooo sophisticated about American politics, but we’re sitting here scratching our heads with the rest of the world. But on top of the injury of being clueless, we bear the insult of being responsible.
But enough of this wallowing! Look, we could waste the whole next two days bemoaning the failings of the U.S. Senate, but we’ll have more than enough time for that. The Senate is notorious as the graveyard of global initiative. They (along with only Somalia) haven’t even ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child. And one thing’s for sure, they’re not going to get us out of Copenhagen alive (“alive” as in “with some prospect of rescuing humanity from the ravages of unchecked climate disruption”). I am as certain of this as I have ever been of anything: It will not be Harry Reid who musters “the fierce urgency of now” to save the world this week.
Blaming the Senate right now diverts attention from the one thing that could salvage a good outcome in Copenhagen and unlock our domestic politics. The Nobel Committee prospectively awarded the Peace Prize last week, so hungry is the world for that one thing. We Americans set the stage for that one thing last November when we responded to a transformational call -- a challenge to rise above our broken politics and do what is right and necessary. We elected Barack Obama.
We did this for a very good reason — our collective instinct that the “game” as we know it is not winnable. We can’t win the game by playing it very well. We have to change the game. And it was that instinct that propelled Obama to the presidency. We weren’t naïve enough to think that it would change on Inauguration Day, or that the blockade that is the U.S. Senate would part like the Red Sea before Obama. We weren’t just smoking hope.
But we did believe that when those moments arise — those big, pivotal, scary moments when the chips are down and the stakes are infinite — Obama would rise to them, and call us to follow. Tomorrow is such a moment.
Something will come out of Copenhagen, you can be sure of that as 110 heads of state aren’t going leave here saying “Oh well, maybe next time.” The question is, in the prevailing sloganese, will they just “seal a deal”, any old deal, so they can get out of here under cover of happy talk.
Or will it be a “real deal,” one that sets the world on a course toward solutions as big as the problem. Will it do the two absolutely necessary and interdependent things:
Stop trying to negotiate with physics and genuinely embrace the imperative to prevent catastrophic climate disruption?
Open a clean pathway out of poverty for the global South, including major investments from the developed world in adaptation, low-carbon development, and forest protection? ($10 billion per year is NOT “major;” it’s short by two orders of magnitude.)
The U.S. Senate cannot answer these questions, and if it could, it would answer them wrong. Only Obama has a shot at saying, "Yes we can" and making it stick.
If he does, he could crash through the appallingly low ceiling of Congress’ vision.
His domestic political opponents would squeal. Political insiders in D.C., including his closest advisors, would wring their hands about the prospect of a Kyoto redux — another deal that the U.S. can’t deliver on. His negotiators have been cowering before that specter all week.
But he would reignite the spirit that got him elected, the hope that maybe we could escape the straitjacket of our dysfunctional politics and face our future squarely, before it’s too late.
He would have to push for a domestic climate and energy bill much stronger than the one that’s stalled in the Senate right now.
Instead of whittling the bill down to nothing in the quest for 60 votes, he’d have to build it back up to something real.
Instead of squabbling over wonky details of climate policy design and swallowing our tongues (or bolting) as the Senate administers the death of a thousand cuts to the carbon cap, his supporters could get all the way behind him and push with as much unity and ferocity as his opponents do.
Instead of defusing and disarming ourselves with clever but substantively lethal ploys to get from here to 60 votes, we could stand up and fight for what’s right.
Instead of pushing a jobs package in the short term and deferring action on the climate and energy bill, the Congress should make the climate and energy bill the centerpiece of the jobs push, the engine of economic and political recovery. Americans know that fossil fuel dependence is a dead-end street, and they’re ready for leaders to turn sharply and boldly to a clean energy future. The President has demonstrated the winning politics of this: Democratic and Republican rivals called for a gas tax holiday last summer while he called for a bold energy transformation. He won.
We could lose this fight. We need to get over that. Obama needs to get over that. We sure can’t win it if we won’t have it.