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Wild ride, open ending in Copenhagen

December 19, 2009 |  2:51 pm

In the early days of the global climate summit, Copenhagen was Christmas incarnate – land of white lights, rosy cheeks and cobbled streets, where sugared almonds roasted in great metal bowls and a classical sextet played carols in the cold.

By the end, the city was Mordor, the soul-crushing provenance of evil in Tolkien’s "Lord of the Rings." Dreary, gray, slush-capped. Daylight made timid cameos. In the stark Nordic hotel hosting U.S. negotiators, so newly built that some rooms lacked shower heads, wind shook the windows like a toddler swatting his Legos.

The city atmosphere was transformed, over two weeks, by the slogging pace of negotiations on a new agreement to control greenhouse gas emissions. Hope cooled. Frustration settled. Police clubbed protesters. The weather piled on: Cozy drizzle turned to sleet and snow.  Optimism flared and died swiftly as the deadline neared. Overnight talks stalled. Basic issues went unresolved.

Who agrees to cut emissions? Who makes sure the cuts come to pass? Who pays, and how much, for poor countries to cope with a changing climate and adopt cleaner sources of fuel?  The summit’s final scheduled day dawned to a bitter chill and pandemic exhaustion.

A jumbo jet dropped into the gloom carrying the man whom many delegates saw as their last hope to break the impasse: the president of the United States, who was risking a lot more than he let on.  President Obama’s previous trip to Copenhagen had ended disastrously, with the adopted hometown he’d come to pitch, Chicago, knocked out first in a five-city competition to host the 2016 Olympics.

This time, he had said he would come only If his presence could tip the scales to a new global climate agreement.  Early signs suggested more disappointment. China, the United States’ key adversary over the issue of monitoring emissions cuts, sent a low-level minister to a meeting Obama attended with prime ministers and presidents from around the world.

The American delegation fumed.  Obama’s morning speech won applause but no breakthroughs from a hall jammed with frazzled and fatigued heads of state. Then hope finally flickered. Aides reported progress from an hourlong meeting between Obama – flanked as he had been all day by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton – and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao.

Half the U.S. team split off to work with the Chinese exclusively. But another multination meeting brought an even lower Chinese representative – a “deputy mining minister”-type, a senior administration official would joke. The Americans came to believe that the Indian delegation, and much of the Chinese, were headed for the airport.

Obama asked for one last shot to woo the Chinese premier.  If he failed, administration officials agreed they would try to get as many countries as possible to sign onto an emissions deal without China – a move that would assuredly scream failure at home and around the world.  The meeting was set. Obama called to Wen from the door. “You ready for me?” he said, walking into a room that also included heads of South Africa, Brazil and (surprise) India.

Three hours later, the president stood in a makeshift briefing room, deep in a cavernous building next door to the main conference hall.  “Today we've made meaningful and unprecedented -- made a meaningful and unprecedented breakthrough here in Copenhagen,” he said.  Then he detailed an agreement, sealed in the meeting with the Chinese, Brazilians, South Africans and Indians, which featured the administration’s preferred provisions on emissions commitments, monitoring and financial aid.

It would later appear the nations that emit the vast majority of the world’s greenhouse gases would all sign on.  The White House and many conservation groups rang victory bells. Obama, an admiring environmentalist would say the next day, had inserted himself into “a brawling, muddled conference with no idea whether any kind of agreement was possible or not. That's putting yourself on the line.”

 But the game was not yet over in Copenhagen. Delegates from 193 nations scuffled over the climate agreement throughout the night and into another, final dawn, after which they decided to recognize the deal but not formally adopt it. A few vocal detractors blocked consensus, including Sudan, Cuba and Venezuela.

The objectors complained the deal cut emissions too lightly, provided too little aid and offered no deadlines for a new, legal treaty. It was a shell of an agreement, they said, and worse than no agreement at all.  Obama did not stay for the melee. After fielding three questions he bolted to his jet and back to Washington, racing a snowstorm of historic proportions that was set to hit the capital.

He arrived to billowing drifts of white, a blanket that he later told reporters made him feel like he was home in Chicago.  While the president dashed to the airport, a small group of reporters left the makeshift briefing room to return to the summit. They walked back through what at first looked like a deserted shopping mall, filled with upscale sneakers and menswear.  Something was off. There were no clerks, no cash registers, no locks on the doors. Closer inspection revealed white mannequins strewn at odd angles. It was a façade – a sort of demonstration mall, apparently meant to help Danes open real stores in real shopping centers.

History will judge the aptness of the metaphor. In Washington this afternoon, Obama apologized for dragging reporters out in a blizzard, then touted the climate agreement, saying “even though we have a long way to go, there’s no question that we’ve accomplished a great deal over the last few days.”  In Copenhagen, the streets cleared of tourists. Blue peeked through clouds. Families hustled with shopping bags over the cobblestones.  Merry Christmas to all, and to be continued.

 --Jim Tankersley in Copenhagen