Earlier this year, Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the leader of an effort to write a U.S. climate change bill, argued that domestic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions would help President Obama pry similar cuts from China and other major developing nations.
The failure by Mr. Obama to win binding reductions at the U.N. climate conference that ended Friday in Copenhagen means he and Mr. Kerry must persuade a skeptical Senate to pass that same bill without a global treaty. The prospects appear as daunting as ever.
Mr. Kerry has joined with Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut independent, to write a bipartisan climate bill in the Senate. The House narrowly passed a combined climate and energy bill this summer that included a cap-and-trade plan to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent by 2020 and 83 percent by 2050.
The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee passed climate legislation last month written by Mr. Kerry and Sen. Barbara Boxer, California Democrat, who chairs the committee, despite a Republican boycott. Their bill also would impose a cap-and-trade plan, one that would go further than the House by cutting near-term emissions 20 percent by 2020.
Such a treaty may come in time, and environmentalists are praising the final Copenhagen agreement as a necessary first step in the process of getting wealthy nations and emerging, developing countries to work together to slow global warming.
David Axelrod, Mr. Obama's top political adviser, said Sunday on CNN's "State of the Union" that the president won't be deterred from seeking climate legislation and that Mr. Obama won a victory in Denmark persuading China and India to agree to limit the growth of their greenhouse gases, if only voluntarily.
"There are millions of jobs to be had there, more energy security, so we're going to pursue this," Mr. Axelrod said, referring to "green" energy legislation and regulations. "But we don't want to put our country at a competitive disadvantage in other ways. Now the Chinese, the Indians and the other major economies are coming along."
Yet the goal of passing a bill in 2010 still means Mr. Obama and Senate Democratic leaders must convince their colleagues that the Copenhagen agreement offers enough reasons to act.
The deal, which was endorsed but not formally adopted by the 193-nation conference on Saturday, puts in writing commitments by the United States, China, India, Brazil, South Africa and other nations to cut or slow their emissions. The signers also support future actions that would hold global warming to 2 degrees Celsius.
The countries also must report their emissions every two years for international review, but no nation will be subject to outside inspection, which China rejected as an infringement on its sovereignty.
The signers further support the creation of a $100 billion annual fund by rich nations by 2020 to help poorer nations pay for climate adaptation, renewable energy and forest preservation. But the outlook for that fund depends on the ratification of a future global treaty, one that U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he wants ready at the next global climate conference in Mexico City in November 2010.
Mr. Obama also pledged $3.6 billion in U.S. contributions to a $30 billion, three-year adaptation and forest fund paid for largely by the European Union and Japan. That amount would extend the $1.2 billion in climate aid funds, which the Obama administration proposed in its 2010 budget, for two more years.
Notably, the agreement left much more to be done to reduce global warming. It does not set emissions cuts for any nation that has not adopted the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which does not cover developing countries or the United States, which rejected it.
The deal also omits mention of a 50 percent reduction in global greenhouse gases by 2050 that had been proposed at Copenhagen. Mr. Obama acknowledged Friday that the voluntary agreement he and the other leaders adopted falls short of what most climate scientists say will be needed to keep global warming within acceptable limits.
The World Wildlife Federation estimated that the voluntary commitments by the signers will lead to increases of 3 degrees Celsius or more.
"Well-meant but half-hearted pledges to protect our planet from dangerous climate change are simply not sufficient to address a crisis that calls for completely new ways of collaboration across rich and poor countries," said Kim Carstensen, leader of WWFs Global Climate Initiative.
Mr. Kerry was nonetheless upbeat about the chances for climate legislation following the Copenhagen deal. He called it a "catalyzing moment" marked by a "meeting of the minds" among Mr. Obama and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, Indian President Manmohan Singh and South African President Jacob Zuma.
"With this in hand, we can work to pass domestic legislation early next year to bring us across the finish line," Mr. Kerry predicted.
But Democratic leaders, as well as Republican opponents in the Senate, quickly signaled that the bill faces no more certain a future after Copenhagen than before.
"Well, we're going to move forward on it. I hope we can get it done this coming year," said Illinois Sen. Richard J. Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, on ABC's "This Week with George Stephanopoulos."
His Republican counterpart, Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, said he was convinced the Copenhagen deal does little to improve prospects for climate legislation.
He stressed that the deal signed by Mr. Obama at Copenhagen must be ratified by the Senate, including proposed U.S. emissions cuts of 17 percent by 2020 and U.S. contributions to the adaptation funds.
"And as a result, the Senate will have to act on this, and there is not the support right now for that," Mr. Kyl said. "My guess is, if it came to the Senate today, you'd have even a majority of Democrats not willing to support American taxpayer money going to these countries."
Meanwhile, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, the ranking Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, urged the Senate to abandon an economywide emissions cut and pass bipartisan energy legislation approved by the committee in June.
"Given the difficulty in developing a new international treaty, this matter must be addressed in a way that strengthens our economy and bolsters our energy security," she said. "Our climate policy needs to stand on its own because it is the right approach for our country, regardless of the actions other nations do, or do not, take.