WASHINGTON — Is the U.S. leading or blocking progress toward stopping global warming? It's a key question this week as officials from more than 190 countries begin the latest round of negotiations seeking an eventual global climate-protection plan.
Environmentalists say that one of this round's main accomplishments could be the creation of a new "green climate fund" to help developing countries adjust in the 2020s. Another might be an agreement that all major countries slash emissions, even if the details get left until later.
The United States is key to how the talks turn out, and environmental activists want it to stop blocking progress on both issues, said Kevin Knobloch, the president of the Union of Concerned Scientists. He and leaders of other major environment groups wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton this week urging her to make sure the U.S. position doesn't send negotiations into permanent gridlock.
"We need greater efforts by all major economies to meet this challenge, and we can't wait another decade to lift our game," Knobloch said Wednesday.
As talks opened Monday in Durban, South Africa, there were fresh reminders from scientists about the need for speed. Greenhouse-gas levels as a result of burning fossil fuels and forests are "very rapidly approaching levels consistent with a 2 to 2.4 degree centigrade rise (about 3.5 to 4 Fahrenheit) in average global temperatures, which scientists believe could trigger far-reaching and irreversible changes in our Earth, biosphere and oceans," Michel Jarraud, the secretary-general of the World Meteorological Organization, said in a statement.
One main task before negotiators is to improve ways to finance efforts to reduce emissions and cope with unavoidable climate-related problems in developing countries. Developed countries agreed in 2009 to help raise $100 billion a year — from governmental and private sources — by 2020 to help poorer nations address global warming. Much of this would go into what's called the Green Climate Fund.
At issue now is how the fund will be set up, used and controlled, although these talks are unlikely to resolve how to raise the money.
The U.S. has raised objections to a committee's proposal about how the fund should be organized, but they appear to be relatively minor points, said Elliot Diringer, the executive vice president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, a business-oriented policy-research group.
Todd Stern, the U.S. climate negotiator, said last week that the U.S. was a "strong advocate" of the fund. He said he was "pretty confident we're going to be able to work these things out."
The environmental groups said in their letter to Clinton that the U.S. objections to the green fund could lead to other countries pulling back from compromises they'd already agreed on. If that happens, it might be impossible to launch the fund, the letter said.
The U.S. so far has contributed $5.1 billion toward a more immediate global goal of $30 billion for this kind of financing by next year.
The other major issue is forging steps toward an eventual treaty. Again, no breakthrough is expected at Durban, but countries might agree to a broad goal.
U.S. negotiators have said they don't want to enter negotiations unless China, Brazil and other large developing countries agree at the outset that they'll accept legally binding obligations to reduce emissions.
The environmentalists' letter said that those developing countries were unlikely to agree at Durban to the U.S. preconditions, and for Washington to insist on them signaled that the U.S. didn't support a mandate for future negotiations.
Jonathan Pershing, the deputy U.S. negotiator, said in Durban that Americans were being careful not to negotiate a treaty that the Senate wouldn't ratify. Any deal must "legally bind other countries with the same level of force," he said.
The U.S. is holding to its 2009 pledge to reduce emissions by 17 percent from 2005 levels by 2020, even though there's no national plan to reach the goal and no talk in Washington about creating one.
But even with climate policy stalled at home, the U.S. role at the talks is important because of the amount of its greenhouse gas emissions, said Cara Horowitz, the executive director of the UCLA Emmett Center on Climate Change and the Environment.
In addition, U.S. support will be important for international financing of climate-related work in developing countries, she said in an email from Durban.
"There is no doubt that the flagging U.S. domestic climate policy is hurting talks here, in that it constrains the ability of U.S. negotiators to endorse international solutions that many others would find palatable," Horowitz said.
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