Why Obama Is Going to Copenhagen

The upcoming Copenhagen climate-change summit has been on the minds of environmentalists for more than a year; not since Kyoto in 1997 have climate discussions garnered as much international attention. And this time, with growing knowledge of the effects of climate change, the stakes are higher. The internationally respected economist and climate-change researcher Nicholas Stern labeled Copenhagen "the most important meeting since the Second World War." Ironically, it is only now, when the meeting looks doomed to failure, that President Obama has announced his intention to go. Why? Because low expectations make for good politics.

At first it seemed logical that Obama would attend. His campaign platform included both a commitment to addressing climate change and a stated desire to cooperate internationally on important global issues. But after several publicly embarrassing episodes, the political calculus seemed to change. Obama's international focus was questioned when he was photographed looking chummy with Hugo Chávez in Trinidad, and after rumors of a cooling relationship between Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Not long after that, Obama came home empty-handed in his push to help Chicago win the 2016 Olympic Games, his international star power notwithstanding.

Late in October, several news outlets (including NEWSWEEK) reported that Obama wouldn't attend the conference. He would be accepting the Nobel Prize in Oslo, "which is plenty close," according to an unnamed official. The idea was that Obama could outline U.S. goals from there. The implication, of course, was that he didn't want to get too close. If he actually went and no treaty was produced, the failure could be pinned on the global superstar who once again couldn't close the deal. It would be like a repeat of the Olympics—an episode that, no matter how well spun, would paint Obama as a political lightweight and allow conservatives to argue that his global popularity and conciliatory rhetoric don't actually deliver the goods for U.S. interests. To mute any criticism that he was averse to risky situations, Obama declared he would go to the summit only if the U.S. were "on the brink of a meaningful agreement and my presence in Copenhagen will make a difference in tipping us over the edge." Translation: "I will go only if we can win; I don't want to be photographed losing."

From then on, Copenhagen's prospects headed toward doom. U.S. negotiators lamented how difficult it would be to bring developing countries, especially major polluters China and India, on board. And there was an obstacle on the domestic front too—the stalled climate bill in the Senate made it clear that the U.S. wouldn't codify its own long-term cuts, or even identify what they were, before Copenhagen. It didn't really matter. By mid-November, the prospect of a treaty was like a candle being starved of oxygen, the flame nearly gone. The new best hope for progress in Copenhagen was a proposal floated by Danish Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen that would outline benchmarks for cuts but wouldn't include any legally binding mandates. It could be seen as an abandonment of the talks' initial purpose (drafting a hard-hitting legal agreement), perhaps, but when viewed from the right angle, it was a way to salvage some good out of what would otherwise be a crash-and-burn failure.

But then word leaked from the White House that Obama would indeed be going, news that was later officially confirmed. What changed? The downplaying of expectations worked to Obama's advantage—if the negotiations were already essentially stalemated, he couldn't be blamed for any failure. In fact, he could reasonably hope to achieve some progress and could claim that anything that came out of Copenhagen would be better than nothing, and could take credit for it. That said, it's still something of a political risk. "This has always been about the bill in the Senate," says David Roberts, a senior writer for Grist. "The bill could still fail in the Senate. So this is Obama getting a little out ahead. But he hasn't, and won't, get way out ahead. If he's willing to go [to Copenhagen], that means there's good reason for confidence in the Senate process." In other words, Obama going out on a limb to propose international targets before Congress has managed to pass domestic ones would increase pressure on the Senate to get to work, and quickly.

For its part, the White House says the president's last-minute choice was made after thoughtful and productive discussions with Chinese and Indian leaders (he hosted Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at a state dinner Tuesday night). Speaking before reporters Wednesday morning, Carol Browner, who directs the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy, rattled off a list of numbers that the U.S. would submit as its proposed cuts. Whether Obama actually would be involved in bilateral or multilateral negotiations at Copenhagen is as yet unclear.

Still, what remains most peculiar about his choice is the reaction of environmentalists. For months, advocacy groups lobbied heavily to urge Obama to breathe life into the negotiations. Now that he's going, they're not as elated as one would expect. "The president needs to do more than just show up," says Friends of the Earth president Erich Pica. "He must ensure that the United States promotes real solutions, including stronger emissions-reduction targets and funding for developing countries to deal with climate impacts and transition to clean-energy economies." Even a Democratic president must sometimes be exhausted by the way environmental groups keep raising the bar he must clear. Let the speechwriting begin.