Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton is holding up the failed Copenhagen global warming summit as proof that under her leadership, the U.S. can bring other nations on board an international effort to curb emissions and fight climate change.
But some on the left say the 2009 meeting is nothing to be proud of, and conservative critics say the Obama administration has committed the U.S. to costly new environmental policies while China and other major polluters do very little.
As the former secretary of state struggles to distinguish herself on climate change, Mrs. Clinton raised the Copenhagen meeting — in the early days of President Obama’s tenure — during last week’s Democratic presidential candidates primary debate. She also discussed the gathering in her 2014 memoir, “Hard Choices,” explaining how she, Mr. Obama and other administration officials crashed a meeting between Chinese officials and other delegations and persuaded them to sign a climate deal.
But the deal they signed was virtually toothless and did not require China, the world’s top greenhouse-gas polluter, to take any concrete actions. In the immediate aftermath of Copenhagen, environmental activists blasted the agreement and cast the meeting as a letdown at best.
Even Mr. Obama in 2009 said “people are justified about being disappointed” about what was and wasn’t accomplished at the meeting.
Despite that, Mrs. Clinton has made the Copenhagen summit a centerpiece of her climate change platform. Like other Democratic candidates, she argues that it is vital to get China, India and other nations to agree to real actions on climate change.
Her actions in Copenhagen, she says, prove that she can get that done if elected president.
“When we met in Copenhagen in 2009 and, literally, President Obama and I were hunting for the Chinese, going throughout this huge convention center, because we knew we had to get them to agree to something, because there will be no effective efforts against climate change unless China and India join with the rest of the world,” she said at last week’s debate. “They told us they’d left for the airport. We found out they were having a secret meeting. We marched up, we broke in, we said, ‘We’ve been looking all over for you. Let’s sit down and talk about what we need to do.’ And we did come up with the first international agreement that China has signed.”
That agreement, in essence, called on all nations to commit to addressing climate change but required virtually nothing in the way of specific actions.
Mrs. Clinton’s ardent defense of her work in Copenhagen had some environmentalists scratching their heads.
“I can’t believe @HillaryClinton brought up Copenhagen as a foreign policy victory. Just shocking disconnect from reality,” Duncan Meisel, coordinator of the Fossil Freeze program with the environmental group 350.org, tweeted during last week’s debate.
Others on the left expressed similar disappointment — and, in some cases, astonishment — that Mrs. Clinton would cite Copenhagen in a positive way.
The Clinton campaign did not respond to requests for comment.
‘What the deal is’
In the years since the summit, the White House has continued climate negotiations with Beijing. Last year, the administration and China made a joint announcement that both countries would commit to more greenhouse-gas reductions.
But that deal, critics say, is incredibly one-sided.
Under terms of the agreement, the U.S. has promised to cut its greenhouse gas pollution at least 26 percent by 2025. To meet that goal, the Environmental Protection Agency has begun to implement, among other things, the Clean Power Plan, which sets up the nation’s first limits on carbon pollution from power plants.
China’s contribution is much less specific and requires little in the short term. Chinese leaders have vowed to cap greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and then begin reductions.
Critics say the deal allows China to continue polluting for the next 15 years while the U.S. suffers economic damage, job losses and higher electricity bills as a result of the steps the administration is taking right now.
“In sum, the deal they got from China, that they supposedly got from China, puts us in a situation where in 2030, when they say they will have stopped increasing their carbon dioxide emissions, they will be producing 2.5 times as much carbon dioxide as we’ll be producing. That’s what the deal is,” said Dan Kish, senior vice president for policy at the conservative Institute for Energy Research.
Mr. Obama hopes to go even further and secure a broader, more immediate global climate deal in December at a United Nations conference in Paris. It’s likely to be the president’s final opportunity to accomplish what he and Mrs. Clinton were unable to do in Copenhagen six years ago.
On Sunday, African nations demanded amendments to an early draft of a U.N. climate pact on the eve of the final negotiating session before the Paris conference. Delegates are to begin editing the 20-page draft on how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions on Monday in Bonn, Germany.
The African countries, many of which are among the most vulnerable to climate impacts such as desertification and sea level rise, said the draft “cannot be used as a basis for negotiation, as it is unbalanced, and does not reflect the African Group positions, and crosses the group’s redlines,” The Associated Press reported.
Mrs. Clinton clearly wants to separate herself from the Democratic pack on climate change. She previously has come under fire from environmentalists for not taking a hard enough line on global warming, and some of her primary rivals seem to have made the issue more of a priority.
Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont, an independent who is gaining on Mrs. Clinton in the polls, used last week’s debate to call climate change the biggest national security threat facing the United States. Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley has said he would move the U.S. to a 100 percent clean electric grid by 2050.
Still, Mrs. Clinton disputes that she has being outdone on climate change.
“I have been at the forefront of dealing with climate change starting in 2009. I’m not taking a back seat to anybody on my values, my principles and the results I get,” she said during the debate.