from Energy, Security, and Climate and Energy Security and Climate Change Program

Could the U.S. Walk Out at Cancun?

November 24, 2010

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The buzz around the Cancun climate talks is that progress is possible on a range of issues, including things like technology centers, support for avoided deforestation, and a financial mechanism for helping developing countries. What these all have in common is that they involve developed countries doing things for developing countries. The one thing that developed countries could get in return is progress on transparency – but that file is in worse shape.

There are decent odds that the United States will be presented with a final package that takes action on all sorts of things that developing countries want but doesn’t have any clear wins for Washington. But I wouldn’t be surprised to see the U.S. reject such an outcome, even if it means walking away with nothing and being attacked for that. Rule #1 for U.S. climate negotiators has always been to make sure that what happens in the UN talks doesn’t hurt prospects for domestic action. Headlines that say “U.S. gives money, technology to developing world; gets nothing in return” won’t exactly fit that bill.

The potential problem is made worse by the fact that many European leaders and UN officials not only seem ok with an unbalanced outcome – they seem to believe that the U.S. would cave in the end. I’m constantly struck by speeches I hear about the Copenhagen accord that focus almost entirely on what it did for poorer countries, and ignore the transparency deal that was critical to it.

The United States knows its bottom lines, and will focus substantial attention on the transparency file. But it may not be particularly effective if it doesn’t have others pushing alongside it, particularly given the sorry state of its domestic policy. And if European leaders think that the U.S. will go along with whatever’s presented to them in the end, they won’t put in too much effort to help the U.S. out.

All of which is a recipe for a potentially ugly ending.

Happy Thanksgiving.

P.S. I’ll be in Cancun for the second week of the talks, but I’ll have plenty to say here starting much sooner.

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