Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines.  The race to Copenhagen is officially about to begin. 

The first of three Bonn Climate Change Talks, the pre-Copenhagen negotiating sessions of the working groups to the Kyoto Protocol and the UNFCCC, begins on Sunday. This marks the beginning of negotiations for 2009, and the first for the Obama administration’s team of negotiators. 

Looking down the road, chief negotiator for the U.S. Todd Stern hopes that Copenhagen will deliver an agreement that is scientifically robust but still politically viable.  Stern speaks from experience; he was also the chief negotiator for Kyoto Protocol under the Clinton administration, which was signed by the US in 1997 only to be rejected in a Senate vote of 95-0 later that year.

Talking with reporters in Berlin earlier today, Stern said, “We do not have any interest in the United States in having a repeat of the Kyoto experience, where we signed an agreement that is dead on arrival when we brought it back home.”

With Copenhagen a mere 9 months away, the pressure on the U.S. to develop a domestic climate and energy policy is mounting from within and without. And despite the compressed time frame, legislation may be forthcoming. Democratic Congressman Edward Markey, Chairman of the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, has promised a vote by the Energy and Commerce Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives by the end of May.

Still, sufficient political support within the Senate for U.S. commitments to a binding international agreement on climate change may be hard for Obama to win by December, and signing an agreement without this support risks confirming Stern’s concerns that Copenhagen go the way of the Kyoto Protocol.

It seems as though some fancy footwork will be necessary by the Obama administration and his team of climate negotiators to reassure Congress that international climate negotiations will not outpace domestic measures while not appearing to a rightfully watchful international community to be dragging their feet on making commitments. Given this, is it reasonable to expect the U.S. to be prepared to sign an agreement come December? And will the pressure to sign an agreement be at the expense of creating the right agreement?  As important as the Copenhagen deadline is, it is significant only as a step towards winning the real race we are currently running—the one to avoid catastrophic climate change.  Yet delay has been justified on such terms in the past, in the name of the need for better science, the time to build political will, and so on, as meanwhile the stakes and carbon emissions crept continually upward.

The clock is ticking (literally, you can see the up-to-the-second countdown to Copenhagen here) and delay has already cost us dearly.  While the timing of this historic next round of negotiations may be inconvenient for the U.S., it does not justify inaction. And perhaps no one knows this better than Todd Stern.

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