Copenhagen Talks Stumble, Obama "Doubts" Collective Action, Faults Chinese

UPDATE: Obama just concluded a 55-minute meeting with Chinese Premier Wen Jiaboa deemed "constructive" and a "step forward" by a White House official. U.S. and Chinese negotiators will seek a compromise before Obama leaves at day's end (it's 2 pm. local). U.S. negotiators have split into two teams - only dealing with China, the other dealing with everyone else.

COPENHAGEN - President Obama said he came to the final day of global warming talks "to act," but found precious little to do as a last-minute push for a deal on reducing green house gases appeared to fail.

"We are running short on time," Obama said to a packed plenary session filled with dozens of heads of state, the final effort of 193 countries here to forge even a minimally binding agreement to curb green house gases. "Our ability to take collective action is in doubt today and hangs in the balance."

Obama warned of "posturing" and said after two decades of international pollution control talks, "we have very little to show for it."

"There is no time to waste," Obama said. "Now I believe it is time for the nations of the world to come together behind a common purpose. There has to be movement on all sides. It is better for us to act rather than talk. "

But action was hard to find.

A hastily arranged meeting this morning attended by Obama and leaders from a sea of other nations (Russia, Japan, Mexico, England, Germany, France, Colombia, Australia, Denmark, India, Brazil, South Africa, Spain, South Korea, Norway and Ethiopia) yielded nothing. Heads of state say they were unable to dislodge the barriers to a deal all-along:  developed and developing nations cannot agree on the pace of emission control, how to verify pollution cuts are occurring, and who will pay and how much for the inevitable economic dislocations carbon cuts will bring.

Senior Chinese officials -- those empowered to make decisions here - boycotted the meeting. Chinese Vice Foreign Minister He Yafei came mainly as an observer. His  attendance was viewed widely by heads of state as a formal Chinese snub of an 11th-hour push for compromise.

The move signaled China's go-it-alone approach. China has committed only to reduce its carbon-intensity, a method of pollution control linked to increases in gross domestic product the West finds underwhelming. China has also balked at allowing tougher international verification of its pollution control efforts.

After the multi-lateral meeting broke up here, French President Nicolas Sarkozy laid blame for the stalemate squarely at China's feet.

"The discussions lasted all night without interruption," Sarkozy said. "The good news is that they're continuing, the bad news is they haven't reached a conclusion. What's blocking things? A country like China which has trouble accepting the idea of a monitoring body."

The goal of the talks was a deal that would reduce carbon emissions so as to slow the projected rise in earth's temperature to 2 degrees centigrade by 2020. But various drafts of pollution controls - ones that couldn't even be agreed upon - fell short of that climate-control threshold.

Obama said the keys to any effective pact are pollution cuts, transparency to prove they are real, and multilateral financing for developing nations. Though Obama did not mention China's resistance to international verification, the implication was clear

"I don't know how you have an international agreement where we all are not sharing information and making sure we are meeting our commitments," Obama said. "That doesn't make sense. It would be a hollow victory."

Sarkozy said India and other nations raised objection too, but China's role as the world's leading emitter of greenhouse gases and chief advocate for developing nations seeking financial aid to offset future pollution control gives it out-sized influence.

"We will honor our word with real action," said Chinese Premier Win Jiabao. "Whatever outcome this conference may produce, we will be fully committed to achieving and even exceeding the target."

Die-hards held out hope for a deal, even as one head of state after another trudged to the rostrum at the Bella Center here to declare disappointment in the paltry results of the most intense round of climate talks in world history.

"Since I believe in God, I believe in miracles," said Brazilian President Luiz Lula da Silva. "And a miracle can happen and I want to be part of that miracle."

"We are moving in the right direction and there could be a result within reach within hours," said German environment minister Norbert Roettgen.

Other officials said a last-minute deal, should it materialize, would only amount to vague, unenforceable political commitments to reduce carbon emissions.

"In Copenhagen the best we can expect is a political declaration," said the environment minister of the Maldives, Mohamed Aslam. "We're very disappointed We didn't come here all this way to not agree anything."

Obama said the science behind climate change was unassailable and that America, the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases, would deal with its pollution problem more aggressively. A House-passed bill to increase carbon taxes and provide provide financing for green technology remains stalled in the Senate.

"This is not fiction, this is science. Unchecked, climate change will pose unacceptable risks to our security, our economies, and our planet," Obama said. "America is going to continue on this course of action no matter what happens in Copenhagen."

But after two weeks of negotiations and countless solemn speeches laced with elegies about the need to rescue a pollution-ravaged planet, the real story here wasn't "what happens in Copenhagen," but what hasn't.