Obama Dramatically Interrupts Meeting, Negotiators Reach Final Agreement

Late in the afternoon on Friday, with the clock ticking down to zero, a rather dramatic scene unfolded that surprised even several top leaders at the climate negotiations in Copenhagen. In a secret meeting between Chinese, Indian, and Brazilian heads of state, the door swung open revealing President Obama, who hadn’t been invited but had arrived to crash the meeting. Several diplomats protested the intrusion, but Obama simply informed them he wouldn’t accept them negotiating in secret. He sat down and started talking.

The result of that discussion is the outcome of the Copenhagen climate talks—a political agreement that gets something on paper but lacks several of the components that many had expected to be finalized at the meeting. Under the agreement, developed nations would scale back their greenhouse-gas output 80 percent by 2050, a vague target that many who wanted stronger action see as insufficient. China’s main sticking point was that it would make domestic cuts but didn’t want to jeopardize its sovereignty by allowing international regulators inside the country, so that requirement was dropped. Another proposal sought for all parties to sign a treaty as soon as possible, but no later than the next round of climate negotiations in Mexico next December. That stipulation was also dropped, leaving a window of now until 2015 for countries to continue to review the proposal before signing on the dotted line.

What was left is a loose agreement for each country to continue working on its own domestic legislation, a lackluster aim that left many environmental groups sorely disappointed. “We all know what we must do to solve global warming, but even the architects of this deal acknowledge that it does not take those necessary steps,” says Kassie Siegel, director of the Climate Law Institute at the Center for Biological Diversity. An Obama administration official admitted to The New York Times that the agreement did indeed fall short of what many had hoped, calling it “not sufficient” to combat climate change, but “an important first step.”

But some analysts like Rob Stavins, a professor of environmental economics at Harvard, see the Copenhagen agreement directly in line with other agreements that past conferences have reached. "This is a post-Kyoto architecture, which is a good one,” says Stavins. To him, Friday’s accord was the third step, following the U.N. Framework Convention on climate change reached in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and the Kyoto Protocol drafted in Japan in 1997. And Copenhagen revealed that combating climate change is apparently a marathon, rather than a sprint.

The most historic part of the talks, though, is the fact that heads of state engaged in direct negotiations around the same table, rather than having their bidding done by lower-level diplomats before arriving for photo ops, which is much more common. But Obama’s personal engagement in the talks opens up the White House to increased criticism from both sides—the right from having gone too far and the left for having fallen short. What comes next, Stavins can anticipate. “We can expect the spin doctors in the White House and the Republican Party will be working on overdrive this weekend."

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