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Obama's Nobel Obstacles

Interviewee: Michael A. Levi, David M. Rubenstein Senior Fellow for Energy and the Environment and Director of the Program on Energy Security and Climate Change
December 11, 2009

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President Barack Obama has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in part for his efforts on nuclear nonproliferation and climate change. CFR Senior Fellow Michael Levi, an expert on both, says Obama's lasting legacy on nuclear nonproliferation hinges a great deal on how the president addresses Iran's nuclear program. "He's trying different things right now," Levi says regarding Iran, "but he's been dealt a very difficult situation there because of the domestic turmoil in that country." Levi says the renewed strategic arms treaty with Russia may also face challenges, specifically ratification by the U.S. Congress. With Obama heading to Copenhagen, Levi says the Obama administration's emissions proposal could help move attention to other critical parts of the international discussion such as finance and developing-country commitments. Yet even there, major hurdles will present themselves, especially on how to tackle climate issues in major emitters like the United States, China, India, Europe, Japan, and Russia. "This isn't something that's going to be resolved during this conference."

In his presentation speech, the head of the Nobel Prize committee talked about President Obama's leadership on disarmament of nuclear weapons, including Obama's decision to reconsider deploying an anti-missile defense shield in Eastern Europe and "improved atmosphere and negotiations" on nuclear weapons with the Russian Federation. What challenges remain on the nuclear arms reduction treaty, and what does the Obama administration need to do to make this happen?

There are two basic challenges remaining on a follow-on to the START treaty with Russia. The first is just getting the treaty written and signed by the two leaders, and it doesn't look like there are any deal-breakers there. They need to work through detailed verification rules; there's a transition we're looking at here from a system that verifies delivery vehicles--missiles, bombers, whatnot--to one that also looks at warheads in particular. But I don't see any reason why they can't conclude that. So the main barrier there is just patience.

The other potential challenge is getting this ratified by the U.S. Senate. I think that a year ago, people assumed that this was trivial, that the United States likes the START treaty [and] there's no reason why people wouldn't want a follow-on. I suspect there may be some temptation to use treaty ratification as an opportunity to go after the president, and I think that some people who have an instinctive aversion to some of these agreements may have substantive problems with it regardless of what the content is. So that's a potential barrier that people still will need to cross.

In his acceptance speech, President Obama said the global community should not allow Iran and North Korea to game the system, and the potential dangers of an arms race in the Middle East or East Asia could not be ignored. How does Obama achieve success on the issue?

North Korea already has gamed the system, and so has Iran. The question is how much more will they be able to do it, particularly in the Iranian case. On nonproliferation there are a variety of areas where the president can leave a real legacy. He can take important further steps to reduce the risk of nuclear terrorism by working with countries around the world to secure weapons and materials and to put other barriers in place. He can work to strengthen to broad international rules of the road for nonproliferation, and next year's nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference will be a big opportunity to do that.

I don't think anyone sees a clear route from here to an Iran without any nuclear threat, or from here to a North Korea that doesn't have any nuclear bombs. The hurdles are huge.

But the biggest piece of his legacy on nonproliferation will likely be determined by what happens with Iran. He's trying different things right now: He's trying engagement, he's trying to build a coalition to put more pressure on the Iranians, but he's been dealt a very difficult situation there because of the domestic turmoil in that country. In order to leave a really solid legacy on nonproliferation, ideally he would have to put in place a system where we're fairly confident that Iran is not going to have nuclear weapons. At a minimum, he has to take steps to make sure that whatever Iran does doesn't cause a ripple effect throughout the world on security and on proliferation.

What will it take to accomplish this?

I don't think anyone sees a clear route from here to an Iran without any nuclear threat, or from here to a North Korea that doesn't have any nuclear bombs. The hurdles are huge. In both cases, the two countries have security concerns: North Korea doesn't want to give up nuclear weapons because it is afraid it will be attacked; Iran doesn't want to give up its entire program because it has genuine security concerns, and also because it has aspirations to be a great power in the region, and it sees that as coming with nuclear weapons. So those are fundamental hurdles that the president faces. How they're overcome is far from clear to anyone, and I would be kidding you to sit down here and say I know the following steps will absolutely fix things for us. The question is, which steps make things work, and which steps relatively will lead to better outcomes.

Obama is now set to appear at the UN's climate meeting in Copenhagen next week. The administration has put forward a provisional interim target of 17 percent emissions reductions below 2005 levels by 2020. What effect does this target have on negotiations going forward?

It helps take away some of the suspicions among other countries that the United States was going to come through with something substantially larger. And as long as countries were waiting for that, they weren't going to negotiate on the basis of the numbers being talked about in Congress. Now that that number is out there in a more concrete way, it helps move attention onto other issues. It also means that we can have discussions on things like finance, on things like developing country commitments that are also critical parts of the international discussion. Countries are going to attack the administration over that number, it's inevitable; any number that's realistic from the United States is going to be one that gets attacked. The administration has tried to counter that by talking about its goals not just for 2020 but for 2025, 2030, 2050, and has actually challenged the Europeans to lay out a detailed path as well. So it ends up giving a mixed bag, but ultimately the bottom line is that it adds some clarity to the negotiations, and clarity is very useful right now.

Earlier this week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency finalized its endangerment finding for greenhouse gases, giving it what Lisa Jackson, head of the EPA, said was an obligation to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. What effect might it have on negotiations overall?

As far as the bottom lines for the negotiations go, it's really a mixed story: On the one hand, yes, it increases the odds of serious legislation, and that would allow the United States to become part of an international agreement. At the same time, if the administration is forced to regulate because it can't get sixty votes in Congress, there's no way that you can imagine a pass to getting sixty-seven votes for a binding international treaty. So, while delegates may be excited that the United States can take steps to reduce emissions [via the EPA], if this ends up being the U.S. [action], they will have to fundamentally rethink the sort of international deal they can fit it into.

Another issue that arose this week was the leaked draft of the so-called "Danish text," reported to be supported by the United States. Some critics say it attempts to cap per capita emissions for rich countries at much higher rates than those of poor nations, in effect solidifying the status quo. U.S. negotiator Jonathan Pershing called it one draft of many. What is your take on the draft, in particular this purported per capita cap?

First, this is one draft of many, and it's a draft that, if you look at, isn't even agreed on fully by the rich countries. There are a lot of blanks left to be filled in. You can't have a serious discussion and a negotiation without at least a straw man text to argue about, so I actually think it's been useful to have something out there. Second, the reality is that poorer countries are going to have lower per capita emissions in 2050...than wealthier countries are going to have. The job of a climate agreement is to deal with climate change. There is a lot of inequality in the world, it's tragic, and we need to deal with it-we probably will not deal with it in the Copenhagen negotiation.

[I]f we get to 2050 and the fact that some people have lower emissions than others means that they are automatically less wealthy, we've screwed up.

The last piece is, 2050 is a long way away; there's going to be plenty of opportunity to renegotiate, to take another look at how things develop, and it's not particularly useful to fight over these very theoretical issues forty-one years out. It's also important to remember that the goal, as we transform the global economy to a low carbon economy, is to decouple emissions from wealth. So, if we get to 2050 and the fact that some people have lower emissions than others means that they are automatically less wealthy, we've screwed up, because we will have failed to decouple growth and emissions, which is what we need to do if we're going to succeed.

This dispute about fairness and equity between rich and poor nations remains unabated. What potential resolutions do you see, and how much play might some of these get in Copenhagen and going forward?

The rich-poor divide on climate change is going to be very difficult, and it's more complicated because it's not just rich and poor, it's rich, and kind-of-rich, and kind-of-poor, and somewhere-in-between, and China, and very poor. So, it's difficult to sort it all out, particularly in a context where you have 194 countries--we've gone from 192 to 194 in the last week--trying to negotiate an agreement. So how you resolve it really remains to be seen.

U.S. climate envoy Todd Stern made some comments about climate financing not going to China (WSJ). Can you talk a little bit about what he meant, and what the impact will be?

What Todd Stern said is that the $10 billion fund being discussed for quick-start financing--$10 billion a year by 2012--should not go to China, and that the U.S. part certainly would not go to China. There are other conduits for carbon finance, for climate finance, particularly offsets under a cap-and-trade system; that's not what he was talking about. He was talking about a public fund. China hasn't responded yet, but this puts them in a tricky situation. If you have a fixed amount of money, and someone is saying, "China doesn't get part of it," if China steps up and says, "We want to have part of that," it's saying, "We want less money to go to the poorest countries in the world." And for a country that styles itself as the defender of the poor and the protector of the G77, that's a very difficult position to put itself in.

Does this have any impact on China's stance to couple binding commitments on emissions reductions with financing?

I haven't seen China say that it will do binding commitments if it gets financing. I haven't seen a Chinese willingness to take on internationally binding commitments yet in any context except on an ad hoc basis like we currently do under the CDM [clean development mechanism]. So the financing discussions will makes things very complicated. There may be room to talk about finance in the context of the 2020 numbers in the larger, long-term efforts. There are also some ways in which this is more complicated than the U.S. envoy makes things out to be. For example, there's a lot of discussion about routing money through the World Bank. The World Bank supports clean development projects in China. I don't see the world saying that should be cut off, and I don't see the United States saying that that should be cut off. So there's money that's going to be available for China, but the U.S. government isn't going to be writing a check.

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