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US Plays the Big Tease at Global Climate Talks

Any one who thinks they're cutting a deal with the U.S. better get cash in advance. After fifteen years of empty promises, it's pretty clear that Washington is playing the world for suckers.
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We're staying at the youth hostel in downtown Cancún, away from the strip of beach hotels that draw $3 billion in tourist trade each year. But I went down there this morning for a meeting, and found myself in a little outpost of the United States: Starbucks, KFC. Chili's (Are you kidding me? Chili's in Mexico?)

And here's the thing -- as usual, the conference center is an outpost of the U.S. too. From the very beginning of this process, 16 long "Conferences of the Parties" ago, it's U.S. politics that have set the tone and pace. And every time with the same message: be less ambitious, so Congress won't nix the deal. That's why we ended up with a Kyoto pact that was a babystep at best. That's why the treaty that was supposed to result from Copenhagen ended up an empty Obama-written "pledge". We're very, very mindful of the importance of our domestic legislation," his chief negotiator Todd Stern said at the time. "That's a core principle for me and everyone else working on this. You can't jeopardize that."

But here's the thing -- the U.S. flirts, it shows some leg, but it never ends up in your arms. The Senate never comes through -- it didn't ratify Kyoto, and it didn't pass the climate legislation last summer. All the watering down was for nought -- you might as well have done the right thing.

Now we're seeing Climate Tease Part III. This time the U.S. is demanding that the poor countries of the world stop thinking of themselves as poor. Before there can be any agreement on stopping deforestation, or on aid to help poor countries cope with climate change, Mr. Stern said last week, those nations have to agree to start cutting carbon more or less as if they were the U.S. This isn't fair -- it's the U.S. that caused the problem, and got rich doing it. But since chemistry doesn't care about fair, you could argue that the U.S. position makes sense: if the developing world's emissions keep skyrocketing we don't have much chance of slowing down climate change. It makes sense to reach a deal where we send them the aid that lets them move past coal.

But since we've seen this movie twice already, we know how it ends. The rest of the world gives in, and then the Senate doesn't come through with the money -- indeed, just yesterday four GOP solons offered a preview of coming attractions. They sent a letter to Secretary of State Clinton demanding that she freeze the relatively small sum of climate aid we'd already pledged -- less than $2 billion next year. They were, they said, opposed to the deal Obama struck last year which would "transfer billions of US taxpayer dollars to developing nations in the name of climate change." In other words, even the small sums we've promised are unlikely to be forthcoming.

All of this was given a special edge on Saturday, when WikiLeaks documents emerged showing the U.S. climate negotiator essentially buying votes for the American do-little position by promising to dole out assistance money -- or to withhold it if countries stuck to their guns. The foreign minister of one island nation that will soon be underwater was recorded asking for 50 million dollars, and promising that the aid would show other nations "the advantages to be gained by compliance."

The bottom line: any one who thinks they're cutting a deal with the U.S. better get cash in advance. Because after fifteen years of empty promises, it's pretty clear that Washington is playing the world for suckers.

And the deeper bottom line: if we actually want to stop global warming, then we have to build a movement big enough to force change. Otherwise we're suckers too.