The Copenhagen, Denmark, climate negotiations were only hours old when the United States faced its first demands. The Swedish Environment Minister announced that he expected President Obama to arrive in Denmark with a new promise of emissions cuts-significantly deeper than the ones now proposed. The lead Chinese negotiator, singling out the United States, reiterated his call for dramatic action from developed countries-a decrease in emissions, over the next 10 years, to at least 25 percent below 1990 levels.
They're wasting their time. The United States has already offered to cut its emissions by 17 percent from 2005 levels (which translates to about 4 percent below 1990 levels). Any promise of significantly bigger near-term cuts could alienate Congress. And despite all the invocations of science, ratcheting down the U.S. goal would make hardly any difference for the planet. Indeed, in the long term, it could backfire.
Let's check the math. Climate change occurs as greenhouse gases accumulate and stop heat from escaping into space. The atmosphere now contains about 385 parts per million of carbon dioxide; most negotiators want to keep that number at or below 450 ppm. But given the policies that countries have in place today, the world is on course to blast past 1,000 ppm. If environmental salvation really depends on a strengthened U.S. target, then one would imagine that meeting demands of a 25 percent cut from 1990 levels by 2020 would make a massive difference.
Michael A. Levi writes from the UN conference on climate change in Copenhagen.