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The View From Cancun


View of a hot air balloon placed by Greenpeace activists in the Kukulkan Castle on the archeological site Chichen Itza, in Yucatan, Mexico, on November 28, 2010. Representatives from 194 countries are meeting in the Mexican resort city of Cancun from Monday, November 29, to December 10 in a UN climate summit.(AFP/Getty Images)

Updated 6:05 p.m.

CANCUN, Mexico -- Two of the biggest players  in the U.N. climate negotiations – the United States and Australia – attempted to soften their negative receptions in Cancun by rolling out clean energy and climate announcements timed to coincide with the first day of the two-week climate summit.


Both countries have drawn criticism for failing to enact domestic climate legislation -- despite pushing for other countries to sign on to binding emissions cuts.

But Australia’s news today could go far toward strengthening its hand here – while the U.S. announcement made barely a ripple.

Australia Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced a plan to fast-track Australia’s carbon pricing policy with the intent of enacting it next year. 


With an opposition Parliament in place, it will still be tough for Gillard to “force this matter through in 2011,” as Reuters reported.  And negotiators know that climate promises from state leaders don’t always translate into action. But Australia still carries more credibility on the issues than the United States, especially after it finally signed on to the Kyoto Protocol in 2007 – a treaty the U.S.  never ratified. 

The United States has no such bow in its quiver. After the failure of this year’s climate bill and the election of a new Republican House, the rest of the world knows that U.S. negotiators can’t make a similar promise. Instead, the White House unveiled today a new report (link below)

Report to the President on Accelerating the Pace of Change in Energy Technologies Through an Integrated Federal Energy Policy

by the President’s Council on Science and Technology, calling for aggressive new investment in clean and alternative energy technology – to the tune of $10 billion to $16 billion a year.  That could give State Department negotiators a talking point to gesture towards – but it seems unlikely the recommendations will go far towards appeasing U.S. critics here. To begin with, it’s clear to all sides that the new fiscally hawkish Congress, focused on slashing the deficit, will certainly not appropriate the money. The report calls for the U.S. to “generate ” the money “through new revenue streams,”   but it’s far from clear how or whether that could ever happen.


For now, U.S. negotiators appear to be taking an assertive tack. Asked at a press conference today how the U.S. could expect to influence negotiations given the Senate’s lack of action, State Department negotiator Jonathan Pershing shot back that it was “remarkably premature” to judge the United States for failure to meet its promise of action just nine months after it was made.

"Just because the first effort  failed doesn’t mean that it’s not going to happen,” he said.

Updated 4 p.m.


Here are the high-level U.S. officials who will appear in Cancun, according to State Department Negotiator Jonathan Pershing:

U.S. climate Envoy Todd Stern;

Secretary of Energy Steven Chu;

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack;

White House Council on Environmental Quality chief Nancy Sutley;

Notably absent from the list are the two officials who most visibly represent President Obama’s energy and climate agenda: EPA chief Lisa Jackson, and White House Energy and Climate czar Carol Browner. Reports are circulating among energy lobbyists that Browner will soon step down from her position, moving over to become White House deputy chief of staff. The White House has declined to confirm or deny the speculation, but Browner’s absence seems a key omission from the U.S. team. 

Updated, 3:20 p.m.


The bad vacation imagery continues. Danish Climate and Energy Minister Lykke Friis, speaking at the lavish Moon Palace resort, surrounded by fake waterfalls and infinity pools. “I see a lot of pools around here. If we make a belly flop in Cancun, no one wants to get back in the pool.”

Updated, 1:20 p.m.


CANCUN, Mexico -- Despite the bleak mood among delegates on the opening day of the summit, the environmentalists and true believers are still out in full force.

Spotted on the side of the highway leading to the Moon Palace conference headquarters: signholders with banners reading "Yes we Cancun!" At this point, even President Obama might question that one.

Another group making a brave effort is the encironmental advocacy organization, which has set up a full booth with colored banners, stickers and other giveaways in the largely deserted opening hall. The group's name refers to the highest number of parts per million of carbon dioxide that can be reached in the atmoshere before scientists say the planet will tip into climactic disaster. Current projections show that with no action, the planet is likely to hit 500 to 900 parts per million by the end of the century.

Said one business leader, who declined to be identified, "I see the guys wearing these "350" t-shirts, and I think, they really should be wearing t-shirts that say "67" - the number of votes you need to ratify a treaty in the U.S. Senate."  

Updated, 9:40 a.m.


CANCUN, Mexico -- There are three “Fiesta Americana” hotels in Cancun, the Mexican resort hosting the annual U.N. climate change summit. The name evokes the hordes of U.S. college students who swarm the beaches here for tequila-soaked spring breaks. But the mood at the beachfront Fiesta Americana Condesa is anything but festive, despite the tropical breeze and unlimited Gulf ceviche and Dos Equis. And it’s precisely because the Americans have, once again, ruined the party.

Cancun was supposed to be a meeting devoted to crossing the T’s and dotting the I’s on last year’s Copenhagen agreement, which was supposed to have been a binding global treaty to replace the soon-to-expire Kyoto Protocol. But everyone knows what happened in Copenhagen: President Obama showed up to urge China to sign on to a new agreement that would force it, for the first time, to agree to binding emissions cuts – even as the Senate waffled on whether to pass a domestic climate change bill at home. The countries signed an essentially toothless agreement, which U.S. negotiators promised would be strengthened in Cancun after the Senate acted. The Senate bill went down in flames, Republicans took over the House, and a U.S. climate bill is off the table for the foreseeable future.

Now the big question in Cancun is whether, without a bill in the U.S, the U.N. climate process can survive at all. While negotiators in the coming weeks are expected to reach agreements on a number of important secondary issues, such as reforestation and technology transfer, the U.S. failure to act at home, and the impasse between the U.S. and China, has many longtime players in the world climate talks deeply disheartened.   

As the talks kick off today, there is a depressing sense that this tropical tourist paradise could become the graveyard for 20 years of global negotiations to save the planet. But if it all falls apart, there’s plenty of beer and Gulf seafood -- included for free in the Fiesta Americana package.  

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