18 dec. 2009

Obama's Most Creative Speech Yet

One of the greatest things about being president is the ability to paint broad strokes. The man in charge can usually get by with expounding large themes like “vision” or “hope” or the “challenge of humanity.” Less visible executive staffers are the ones who sort out particulars of a new policy or diplomatic agreement after the motorcade departs.

But that won’t cut it for President Obama when he speaks to delegates Friday at the U.N.-sponsored climate conference in Copenhagen. When Obama agreed to attend the negotiations last month, he planned his speech to be the icing on an otherwise bland cake. Or, at the most, give one final push to an agreement hammered out by delegates. That, however, was before talks nearly deteriorated this week, hitting a stalemate just days before finishing. (Large countries have agreed only to small steps, while small countries refuse to accept anything less than giant leaps.) The result is an Obama forced to transform rather dramatically from America’s grand orator to its top negotiator.

Developing countries and the hordes of demonstrators at the talks have wanted to know one thing from the U.S. since the conference began: will it agree to sweeping emissions-reduction targets? The answer until now has been no, not without further economic analysis and assurance that other large countries like China and India will also play ball. The U.S. has, for good measure, thrown a bone to critics at the talks. Early Thursday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton agreed to a $100 billion transfer of mitigation funding to poorer countries to deal with local effects of climate change. That's a drop in the bucket for those small countries, which have asked for at least a trillion. And so the bickering has continued.

So when Obama arrives in Denmark on Friday, the American president will be forced to deliver his most creative speech yet. At the risk of the negotiations utterly collapsing, he’ll have to agree to further emissions cuts without overpromising what the Senate may agree upon next year. He’ll have to offer large sums for deforestation mitigation and adaptation for small countries without knowing exactly how much Congress will authorize. And he’ll have to make a repeated case for urgency in the face of the world’s environmental challenges while admitting that his country has, in fact, been one of the biggest foot-draggers of them all.

Obama’s no amateur when it comes to polished speaking, and his speechwriters will undoubtedly draft some shiny lines. But in the open plenary session that will follow, he’ll be asked for specifics. He’ll be asked to offer firm numbers on exactly what the U.S. will put in writing by a conference full of international delegates who won’t know or care just how slow the U.S. Senate actually works.

Never unprepared, the president will have some numbers in his pocket. Last month the White House announced that Obama would propose cutting emissions 83 percent by 2050, which would entail a 30 percent reduction below 2005 levels by 2025. But still, that's not nearly enough for the other frustrated parties around the table. One of Obama’s most valuable weapons will be the EPA findings released last week that too much carbon in the atmosphere can cause unhealthy lungs, essentially authorizing his administration to cut domestic emissions on its own.

But if Obama goes out on a limb, so as to say “If Congress doesn’t take up this issue, I will,” the delegation of senators and congresspeople in the audience may remind him that they don’t have to fund the effort.

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