Cancun, Mexico (AFP) Dec 14, 2010
A new international accord on global warming has heartened environmentalists, but casting a shadow is the political shift in the United States where legislative climate efforts died in 2010.
President Barack Obama's administration played an active role brokering the December 11 deal in Cancun, Mexico, which pledged deep cuts in carbon emissions blamed for climate change and set up a new global fund to administer aid.
But in Washington, a bill to impose restrictions on carbon died in the Senate. That was even before mid-term elections in which Obama's Democratic Party was trounced by the Republicans, some of whom doubt most scientists' view that the world is heating up.
"Obviously, whether or not the US can live up to its commitment is an issue that is stuck in the back of people's minds," said Jake Schmidt of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group.
It marks a sharp turnaround from just two years ago, when Obama's election particularly cheered the European Union which was deeply at odds with previous president George W. Bush, who rejected efforts to curb climate change.
Chief US negotiator Todd Stern, whom other envoys welcomed with applause when he replaced Bush's climate team, was cautious on whether the Cancun accord could turn around the mood in Washington.
Stern said the accord should satisfy US political players who have insisted on verifiable action on climate change by other nations -- especially China, which has surpassed the United States as the largest carbon emitter.
"It doesn't mean I think you're suddenly going to get the votes to pass last year's bill, because that's not going to happen right away. But I think it's generally a helpful development," Stern said.
Senator John Kerry, who spearheaded the climate bill, welcomed the Cancun accord and said that far more action was needed "to prevent catastrophe," with experts pointing to growing storms and disasters as evidence of climate change.
"The United States needs to get back in the game today instead of being held back by obstructionism and broken politics at home, which have hurt us not just in the race to address climate change, but which have set us back in the race to define the clean energy economy and all the good jobs that come with it," the Massachusetts senator and former presidential candidate said.
But Republican lawmakers have criticized one of the key planks of the Cancun accord -- a 100 billion-dollar-a-year fund starting in 2020 to assist the poorest countries worst affected by climate change blamed largely on industrial nations' emissions.
In a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during the Cancun talks, four Republican senators, led by John Barrasso of Wyoming, raised questions about the science behind climate change and noted that the United States was confronted by high unemployment and a spiraling debt.
"It makes no sense for the United States to now spend billions of taxpayer dollars to fight climate change in other countries," they wrote.
"If the administration is serious about listening to the American people, they will cancel this international climate change bailout."
Japan and the European Union have led pledges to the proposed fund, with Clinton saying last year at the Copenhagen climate summit that the United States would also contribute.
The Cancun accord set up the practicalities for administering the aid. In a point pushed by the United States, the new Green Climate Fund will be administered by the World Bank.
Alden Meyer, a climate talks watcher at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said it would be impossible to convince climate skeptics but that the Cancun accord was welcome after the widely criticized Copenhagen accord.
A collapse of talks in Cancun "could have been used by opponents saying, 'The world isn't serious and we told you so,'" Meyer said.
"So we avoided a negative, and we got a small positive," he said.
Despite the shift in Washington, a number of US states are moving on their own against climate change. California, the most populous state, is putting together a cap-and-trade system after voters rejected a referendum to stop it.
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