At the Climate Change Conference underway in Bonn, Germany, the top U.S. climate change negotiator Todd Stern sounded some promising notes about American engagement. In a question an answer session, however, he did offer some caution, saying that the Obama administration’s ultimate ability to sign-off on an agreement in Copenhagen in December ultimately hinges on what happens in the United States Congress.

QUESTION: The second concern was about Congress, how far the Congress will be ready to go by the end of the year and the fear that you may have a disconnection between the administration and the Congress, and reproduce the mistake of Kyoto that was signed abroad and never ratified at home. So how will you manage to make sure that the Congress will be ready in December for an international agreement in Copenhagen?

TODD STERN: Well, I can’t guarantee when Congress is going to be ready. I am hopeful… The centerpiece of the President’s domestic program is the so-called cap and trade legislation. I am hopeful that legislation can get done this year before Copenhagen but I have no idea whether it will… Maybe yes; maybe no. It is extremely far-reaching and ambitious legislation, so it’s impossible for me to predict.

If it isn’t ready by the time of Copenhagen, then we’ll have to try and structure the agreement to accommodate that fact. I mean the one thing that is a working assumption for us, and it connects to the point that you just made about Kyoto, is that we need to be guided in the international setting by what the ultimate legislation, domestic legislation, that Congress and the President are able to arrive at. If you follow this at all in the U.S. press, you will know that this is going to be a very challenging, very difficult exercise to get this legislation done. I am confident that we will get it done but it’s not going to be easy. It’s going to take a lot of effort.

There is going to be a lot of negotiation, among a lot of different parties. It is not just partisan, by the way. It is regional as much as it is partisan, because there are all sorts of different interests and concerns that come into play. But at the end of that negotiating effort domestically, there will be a bill and there will be a number. And I do not think that it is realistic to believe that we will then be able to go into an international setting and get a higher number than that — and take it back to the same Congress, and get even more votes than we got for the domestic [legislation]. I don’t think that’s going to happen. So if it’s not done by December, then there will have to be ways that we structure the agreement to accommodate that fact. I don’t want to negotiate the agreement in this setting. There are different ways to think about doing that but it is absolutely one of the challenging aspects of this exercise for the United States.

This is a very important point that those who are championing an international agreement ought not lose sight of. The Obama administration would invite failure for Copenhagen if it steps too far ahead of Congress. As Elliot Diringer of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change explained in Congressional testimony last month, we’ve seen that movie before. And it ain’t pretty.

One of the most critical lessons of the Kyoto experience is how important it is that our domestic and international climate policies proceed in tandem. The United States should not repeat the mistake of allowing its climate diplomacy to move out ahead of its domestic policy process. This requires close coordination not only within the executive branch, but more importantly, between the Administration and Congress.

The United States’ leverage in the international negotiations will depend heavily on the pace of domestic climate legislation. The ultimate timing and stringency of U.S. legislation will bear directly on the timing and strength of a U.S. commitment. For that reason, U.S. negotiators may not be in a position to conclude a final agreement intended for ratification until domestic legislation has been enacted or is close to enactment. Still, with the general direction of domestic climate policy now emerging, the United States can and should begin negotiating the overall structure of a new international agreement. At the same time, the Administration should work with Congress to incorporate into legislation provisions that will help at the negotiating table.

It is sort of scary to think that the fate of the island state of Vanuatu may hinge on the votes of a few back-bench United States Senators.

(Image from Flickr or Senator Max Baucus, the decidedly not backbench Chair of the Senate Finance Committee).

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