COPENHAGEN, Denmark - Two top Obama administration officials arrived yesterday at the U.N.-sponsored climate talks offering both diplomacy and a tough line: The United States is willing to be a full partner in fighting climate change, but the real problem is with China and the developing world.
The day began with Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson detailing the many measures that she said President Obama has taken to cut greenhouse gases in the United States, telling a packed audience at the U.S. pavilion in the Bella Center, "We are seeking robust engagement with all of our partners around the world."
But two hours later, Todd Stern, the U.S. special envoy for climate change, made clear that America sees carbon reductions by China and other major developing countries as "a core part of this negotiation."
"Emissions are emissions. You've just got to do the math," Stern told reporters, citing estimates that 97 percent of future emissions growth will come from the developing world. "If you care about the science, and we do, there is no way to solve this problem by giving the major developing countries a pass."
Responding to Stern, China's climate-change ambassador, Yu Qingtai, suggested the United States needed to reexamine its negotiating stance.
"What they should do is some deep soul-searching," Yu told reporters.
The sharp exchange between the two nations that together account for roughly 40 percent of worldwide greenhouse-gas emissions underscores just one of the divisions within the international community on climate. The talks here aim to create a political framework for a treaty next year to succeed the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.
The small island nation of Tuvalu, threatened by rising sea levels, tried unsuccessfully yesterday to get delegates to consider a legally binding new protocol that would have included a more ambitious climate target and mandatory greenhouse-gas cuts for both industrialized and major emerging economies.
"This is a moral issue," said Tuvalu delegate Ian Fry.
While China and India joined Saudi Arabia in blocking the motion, the dispute sparked an impromptu protest just outside the main session by roughly 100 environmental activists, who chanted "Tuvalu!" and "Legal Treaty Now!" U.N. police closed the plenary area in response.
Jackson, during her visit, used soft diplomacy to address the concerns of some of the countries most vulnerable to climate change, meeting with female farmers from Africa in a session organized by Oxfam.
Constance Okollet, a peasant farmer from eastern Uganda, told the EPA administrator how her village was first destroyed by floods in 2007 and then battered by drought as they tried to rebuild.
"From what I saw, she really felt for us and was touched by what we told her," Okollet said of Jackson. "She said she is going to push, and make things work out."
But many representatives of developing nations remained unconvinced, concerned that the Americans are quietly negotiating a deal that will not address all the issues of equity that have surfaced in the global-warming debate.
Key representatives such as Luiz Alberto Machado Figueiredo, Brazil's chief climate negotiator, said industrialized countries must commit to significant emission cuts, money to help developing nations adapt and curb climate change, and a transfer of clean technology if they expect countries like his to bind themselves to climate targets as part of an international treaty.
"Major developing countries have shown clearly that they are willing to act in the context of a truly global effort, where everyone needs to do their fair share in the context of their responsibilities," said Figueiredo, whose nation has pledged to cut its growth in carbon emissions 36 to 39 percent by 2020.
Jake Schmidt, who directs international climate policy for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in an interview that it was not surprising Obama administration officials were "using all their tools" to ensure that key developing countries will make meaningful commitments in a new climate pact.
"This is high-stakes negotiation of the utmost urgency," he said. "You have to try everything to move this issue forward."