With President Obama's failure to secure the Olympics for Chicago, a bunch of the blogosphere -- including even the NYT -- is abuzz with beltway-style speculation that a return to Copenhagen for COP-15 is now "too risky," that the President has now blown his political capital and will show himself weak by going to a summit that probably cannot, at this point, produce a major treaty.
This speculation all seems to me to be a gross misreading of the situation. Most knowledgeable observers haven't expected to see a comprehensive treaty signed at COP-15 for some time now. Instead, the point of this meeting is to reframe the issue, ramping up global awareness of the need to act quickly, laying out the outlines of a new treaty, and hammering out some of the bilateral agreements needed to make the thing work. Simply by showing up, Obama adds weight to this reframing. And he's smart enough to be able to explain that to the American people (whether the beltway media's smart enough to understand the actual situation remains to be seen).
On a domestic policy front, I've long argued that the biggest reason the President needs to go to Copenhagen has absolutely nothing to do with getting a treaty signed: he needs to go so that he can focus the attention of the nation on climate change, and teach the American people about the dangers we face and the opportunities responding to climate change can bring. The only people who will hate this are the people who are already the avowed enemy of the President and all he stands for, and frankly, who cares about making them happy?
Finally, Obama needs to go to Copenhagen to begin to undo some of the foreign policy damage that 8 years of the Bush administration has done to America. He needs to go to show that America is not the enemy of the world on this issue, and that we are prepared to help civilization confront the greatest danger it's faced since the ice sheets receded. If he makes the trip to pitch an American city's commercial interests to the IOC, but blows off the most important meeting on the planet, he won't look strong, he'll look out of touch.
And on that front, the President will win just by playing. Obama went to Copenhagen this time to advance the interests of his home town and (arguably) the U.S.. If he goes in December, he'll be there in the interest of a global deal that helps all humanity, and in the interest of the American people. He looked parochial and grasping to the rest of the world this time -- and he lost before he even set foot on Air Force One; but next time he'll win (and we'll win) the minute he announces the trip. Conversely, by not going, he'll send a signal to the rest of the diplomatic world that the U.S. is not a player in the global deal being created, and still can't be trusted. Worse, he'll be telling the planet's three billion young people -- who understand that Cop-15 is a fight for their future -- that the U.S. doesn't care about them: staying home would be a PR blunder of the same kind as (though obviously not as bad as) starting an illegal, unilateral to war in Iraq. Going to Copenhagen for the IOC but not for Cop-15 would be middle-finger diplomacy.
For the sake of the most important diplomatic process on the planet, for domestic political reasons and for the standing of the U.S. in the community of nations, President Obama needs to be headed back to Copenhagen this December. The punditry would do well to step outside the echo chamber on this one.
I read the article on the NYT and I have to say I totally agree with Roger Pielke Jr., University of Colorado :
If Obama doesn't go to Cop-15 while he did for the Olympics would lead people to think :“Climate change is not as important as the Chicago Olympics". Additionally, Obama's presence will erase the memory of the U.S absence from Kyoto and will -even if their are no concrete results- increase the international focus on Cop-15.
He can go to listen, to learn, and to express support for a full global discourse. This is the beginning of the serious work, not the final resolution.
He might call for a package of proposals to help developing economies avoid the sunk costs of 19th and 20th Century non-sustainable models that have created inertia and resistances in the already-developed economies. Technology transfers and financial support are needed to facilitate new models. The developed world must help the rising economies chart new and more sustainable ways.