In The Field

Poznan: Still managing expectations

The notion that it will be difficult to complete a global warming treaty next year in Copenhagen is hardly controversial in the United States, but it still doesn’t sit well with many in the international community. Indeed, Reuters has reported that UN climate chief Yvo de Boer went so far to dismiss such statements by Eileen Claussen at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change as “unhelpful and incorrect.”

But from Claussen’s perspective, now is the time to talk about what is possible, so as to avoid misunderstanding and recriminations down the road. She isn’t alone. The Environmental Defense Fund and the International Emissions Trading Association hosted a side event last night featuring several staffers representing both Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill.

People flocked to the room, and many ended up sitting on the floor when chairs and standing room filled up. The congressional aides’ carried a simple message across the Atlantic: Legislating is a complex affair in the United States, due in large part to founding fathers who distrusted government and therefore created a system rife with checks and balances. Expediency was never the goal.

“You need to understand the process, so that if it takes longer than you would like you don’t take away the wrong message,” said Lorie Schmidt, counsel to outgoing House Energy and Commerce Chairman John Dingell, a Democrat from Michigan. (Schmidt has headed up the issue under Dingell, but it’s not clear what kind of staffing changes might be in order when California Democrat Henry Waxman takes charge of the committee next year.)

At this point, it’s not so much a question of will on the part of the new Democratic leadership in Washington as the sheer volume of work that needs to get done. The process is even more difficult because ratifying a treaty requires 67 votes in the Senate, which means the leadership will need to build a broad bipartisan coalition. The congressional aides were optimistic, but very blunt about the challenges ahead.

“There’s a lot of us with good will,” said Mark Helmke, counsel to Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee. “Bear with us.”

I asked the Finnish gentleman sitting next to me what he thought. He said the debate in the United States is “very different” from the debate in Europe, “but they are getting there.”

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