Most negotiators are, rightly, still focused on delivering a successful outcome at the climate talks that conclude this Friday. But with fights over several critical issues continuing without apparent progress, there's another important question being whispered here: who, when it comes crunch time, might walk away if they don't see the right deal?
Much has been made of the strong demands and procedural hurdles being thrown up repeatedly by African and small island states. They want an environmentally stronger deal than the big players can deliver. In the end, though, most of those countries probably appreciate that an acrimonious collapse will lead to less action on climate change than a relatively weak deal, and hence to greater impacts at home.
China is another candidate. It doesn't look like they'll be getting a significant chunk of money out of an agreement. And while they worry about climate change, locking in cuts from the U.S. and others isn't a top priority. Plus if the United States gets blamed for collapse in Copenhagen, China gains. But China also has reasons to play ball. The most vulnerable countries are increasingly focusing attention on what they see as inadequate Chinese efforts, rather than just on the United States; a collapse is thus unlikely to yield China a clean PR win in the developing world. A bad outcome would also be blamed largely on China in the United States - and China is loath to stoke a hostile domestic U.S. crowd. Plus if the negotiations can come up with some money for poorer developing countries, China could take some credit.
Other big developing countries might also walk if the deal isn't right. Some of them think that they might get a better deal if we just came back to the issue in a few years. And many of them don't see climate change as a hugely urgent issue. It's hard to see one of these countries stepping in to blow up an international deal - but if a critical mass of them develops, that could be another story.
The final possibility is the United States. The administration needs an outcome that doesn't hurt them in Congress. That means making sure that a deal doesn't cement a bad scheme for measurement, reporting, and verification (which would be worse than punting that issue to future negotiation), and that it doesn't set the stage for binding developed and developing countries in legally distinct ways (another issue that might be deferred). If either of those two bottom lines is violated (they both remain controversial), and the Chinese and Indian emissions-cutting proposals stay as they currently are (as they are expected to for now), then it's not clear what the United States gets substantively from an agreement. At the same time, the United States genuinely wants progress on the issue, and would rather not be blamed for failure, both because of the ramifications internationally, and because anything that's seen as indicating that international progress on climate change is impossible would weaken the administration's hand with cap-and-trade legislation on the Hill. That gives it a strong incentive to find a workable outcome.
With all luck, none of these countries will feel the need to walk away. That certainly won't stop them, though, from thinking through all their options.
Michael A. Levi writes from the UN conference on climate change in Copenhagen.
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