Secretary of Energy Dr. Steven Chu is in Cancun as part of the United State’s delegation at the COP16 climate meetings. Chu will be the highest-ranking official from the U.S. to join the talks.
Unless a major breakthrough happens in Cancun — and you can rest assured that is unlikely to happen, Chu will be the only big name from the Obama administration to attend the meetings, but this isn’t a bad thing.
Over the weekend, I talked with several individuals involved with the negotiating process who said it’s better for countries to keep high-profile leaders away from COP16. “Striking a big deal and making a big step, or having a big headliner isn’t always the right way to do it,” said one insider. Another person with direct knowledge of the negotiations said, “This process is about taking steps in the right direction over a long period of time. If we take too big of a step this year, it may lead to sticking points at COP17 or COP18 and then we will have to step back.”
This actually makes a lot of sense. If the new goals of COP16 is to simply take small steps in a number of areas, it would be unwise to have a big name or even a big location become the namesake for the deal. An Obama deal could create concerns that an agreement is to America-centric; a Cancun accord could lead some developed nations to think that developing nations are pulling a fast one on them.
This is the new art of these international meetings — getting stuff done without undermining progress because of credit-claiming. Last year, the hopes were that a Copenhagen Protocol would become as synonymous as the Kyoto Protocol. In an effort to make this dream come true, President Obama flew in, talked, got mad at the Chinese and left with no deal. The result was Copenhagen being largely thought of as a disappointment instead of the great milestone it was hoped to be.
A year later, Japan is using its leverage as the namesake of the Kyoto Protocol to influence the next version of that very agreement.
So this time around the talkers are home, and in their place are the policy folks. Chu’s presence could not be more indicative of this reality; the same could be said for President Obama’s absence. This time around, it's about getting little things done while no one takes a big amount of credit.