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Not sure what to make of the global warming talks? You’re not alone…

As the United Nations’ global warming talks wound down last week, the tone among those who track such things seemed to alternate between optimism and pessimism, frustration and pragmatic resignation.

Not much got done, but nobody really expected anything important to happen. The negotiating text ballooned as parties sought to insert and clarify countless disagreements and positions, but that’s the way it always works. Nobody gave an inch on their negotiating positions, but what kind of self-respecting negotiator would reveal the bottom line at this stage in the game?

As is often the case, the biggest deals are likely to be struck at the last minute. Many of the decisions that need to be made involve money and other commitments that only the top dogs can make, and neither the money masters nor the top dogs are in the room with the environmental ministries at this stage. In the case of the United States and China, as we discuss in our story this week, even the top climate officials elected to forgo Bonn in favor of bilateral talks in Beijing.

All of which makes assessing progress quite difficult. Indeed, UN Climate Chief Yvo de Boer held one closing press conference, but reports labeled him alternately confident and doubtful regarding the prospects for striking a deal in Copenhagen come December.

As it happens, both stories say roughly the same thing: de Boer is confident that some kind of agreement will be reached, but doubtful that parties will be able to simply wash their hands, head home and forget about the process afterward. This is pretty much conventional wisdom at this point, particularly in the United States, where the Obama administration is working to put together a domestic policy in order to clarify what it might be able to commit to internationally.

Most observers still believe it’s highly unlikely that the United States will be in a position to fully commit itself to a deal in December, but then again, most observers also expected climate legislation to quietly slide off the congressional agenda this year. The opposite has happened: The House of Representatives could vote on climate regulations in the next couple of weeks, and now some are suggesting that the Senate could begin to move a bill next month.

To be clear, getting a bill to the president’s desk before Copenhagen would still require Herculean effort, but it increasingly appears that Democrats and the administration intend to try. And if they succeed, the conventional wisdom regarding prospects in Copenhagen might need a few revisions.


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