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First 100 Days

Obama Team Poised to Help Fight Global Warming Abroad

At its first negotiations on climate change, the Obama administration is trying to convince other countries that the U.S. does care about global warming and wants to shape an international accord.

After eight years on the sidelines, the U.S. says it is ready for a central role in developing a new agreement to slash greenhouse gases. But whether the U.S, which is the second largest source of heat-trapping pollution, is ready to sign onto a deal by year's end could depend on Congress.

In a rare move, State Department climate envoy Todd Stern joined the rest of the U.S. delegation in Bonn, Germany, for the first of a series of largely technical meetings that begin Sunday. The talks are hoped to lay the groundwork for an agreement to be signed in December in Denmark.

Stern, in a telephone interview Thursday with The Associated Press from London, said it was important for him to attend and "make the first statement on behalf of the United States and say we're back, we're serious, we're here, we're committed and we're going to try to get this thing done."

He added, "We want to convey that we mean it."

Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, which is hosting the Bonn talks, said participants "will be very excited" to hear Stern outline the basic principles that will guide the U.S.

Other countries are expecting a new tone after eight years during which the Bush administration made clear its disdain for any climate discussions aimed at securing a commitment to mandatory greenhouse gas reductions.

This time the U.S. delegation represents the views of a White House committed to mandatory action on climate change. And unlike 1997, when the Kyoto Protocol was drafted, there is now a Democratic-controlled Congress moving to embrace mandatory limits on greenhouse gases.

Back then, the United States lacked support for mandatory actions to achieve the reductions the U.S. had signed on to. Congress never ratified that accord and the Bush administration later rejected it outright, citing the lack of participation from developing countries.

That lack of involvement and the cost of emission cuts, in form of higher energy bills, have dominated the U.S. debate over Kyoto for years. Those issues have not have not disappeared.

But President Barack Obama has acted to reduce U.S. greenhouse gases and wants Congress to pass a cap-and-trade program that would cut global warming pollution 80 percent by mid-century.

"The president has embarked on a strong domestic program already and there is much more coming," Stern said at a briefing Friday in Berlin.

On Saturday, the White House announced it was convening a Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate in Washington in late April to help achieve a successful outcome in Copenhagen and develop joint ventures to increase the global supply of clean energy. With only six weeks of U.N. talks scheduled before the Denmark meeting, the forum will give leaders of the 16 major economies and the U.S. more time to negotiate a deal.

The final meeting of the forum will be held in La Maddalena, Italy, in July 2009.

Stern said the U.S. position on an international agreement will be framed by what happens in Congress. The reductions expected to be required by Congress will be the basis for what the U.S. can commit to reducing, he said.

But Congress already is trying to address the recession, health care and other priorities. "This will be a big, big fight to get the domestic piece done," Stern conceded.

Many European countries want the U.S. to adopt stronger short-term targets, equal to a 25 percent to 40 percent reduction from 1990 levels by 2020. Obama has called for reaching 1990 levels by then, a roughly 15 percent cut.

Stern has warned European leaders that their demands will lead to stalemate.

In Germany, the U.S. team is expected to spend most of its time listening and forming relationships rather than discussing concrete proposals.

That "is unfortunate given the intense timetable between now and Copenhagen, but understandable," said Jennifer Havercamp, who leads Environmental Defense Fund's international climate negotiations team. "It will not achieve a lot of substantive progress in the negotiations because the Obama team is so new."

Stern, in a telephone interview with The Associated Press during a stopover in London on Thursday, said his participation in the talks is to punctuate the United States' newfound determination to deal with the climate problem.

"I frankly thought it was important for me to come and make the first statement on behalf of the United States and say we're back, we're serious, we're here, we're committed and we're going to try to get this thing done," said Stern. "That is why I am here. That is the point I want to convey. We want to convey that we mean it."

Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, which is hosting the Bonn talks, said participants "will be very excited" to hear Stern outline the basic principles that will guide the United States in the coming negotiating process.

They clearly are expecting a new tone after eight years during which the former Bush administration repeatedly made clear its disdain for any climate discussions whose aim was a commitment to mandatory greenhouse gas reductions.

This time the U.S. delegation represents the views of a White House committed to mandatory action to deal with climate change. And unlike 1997, when the Kyoto Protocol was drafted, there is now a Democratic-controlled Congress moving to accept mandatory limits on greenhouse gases as well.

At the time of the conference in Kyoto, Japan, the United States lacked support for mandatory actions to achieve the reductions it had signed onto. As a result, the Kyoto Protocol was never ratified by the U.S. Senate. The Bush administration later rejected it outright, citing the lack of participation from China, India and other developing countries that are major polluters.

The lack of involvement by developing countries and the cost of emission cuts in the form of higher energy bills, issues that dominated the U.S. debate over the Kyoto accord for years, have not disappeared. They are likely to continue to haunt the Obama administration as it takes over the negotiations.

President Obama already has taken significant strides to reduce U.S. greenhouse gases and wants Congress to enact a cap-and-trade program that the administration says would reduce U.S. global warming pollution 80 percent by midcentury.

"The president has embarked on a strong domestic program already, and there is much more coming," Stern said at a briefing in Berlin on Friday in advance of the talks.

Stern said the American position on an international climate agreement will be framed by what happens in Congress. It is not realistic for the United States to enter into an agreement that does not match what Congress plans to enact, he argued.

The reductions expected to be required by Congress will be the basis for what the United States can commit to reducing in any international agreement, said Stern.

Can Congress, which is also juggling ways to respond to an economic recession and deal with other priorities such as changing the U.S. health care system, come through on climate change?

"This will be a big, big fight to get the domestic piece done," Stern conceded.

Can the United States balance European expectations with what is politically viable?

Many European countries want the Americans to adopt stronger short-term targets, equal to a 25-40 percent reduction from 1990 levels by 2020. Obama has called for reaching 1990 levels by then, which would be a cut of roughly 15 percent.

Stern already has warned European leaders that their demands will lead to stalemate.

"Reducing 25-40 percent below 1990 levels would be a good idea if it were doable," he said at a recent conference in Washington, but it seems "beyond the realm of the feasible."

In Bonn, the U.S. team is expected to spend most of its time listening and forming relationships, rather than discussing concrete proposals.

That "is unfortunate given the intense timetable between now and Copenhagen, but understandable," said Jennifer Havercamp, who leads Environmental Defense Fund's international climate negotiations team. "It will not achieve a lot of substantive progress in the (Bonn) negotiations because the Obama team is so new."