It would be easy to argue that the most important participant at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change occurring this week in Poznan, Poland is not even in the building.
The coming of U.S. President-elect Barack Obama is “the one big positive factor that everyone is hanging onto,” says Fred Heutte of the U.S. Sierra Club, a point confirmed in slightly different language by Greenpeace, Kert Davies, “Everyone is happy that we can flush the toilet on the Bush decade.”
But if the coming of Obama is being celebrated, his absence is one of the factors that has thrown these talks off kilter.
The first and most obvious result is the removal of the U.S. as the world’s most despised laggard. It’s understood, now, that a big part of the problem in the past eight years was not “America” but the reigning American administration. With Obama transitioning into power, “the U.S. will probably get a honeymoon period,” Heutte says.
In the meantime, the spotlight that shone so brightly on the U.S. is now casting around and catching some other countries in flagrant states of climate disregard.
Canada has been the worst, retreating to positions that were already settled at the last COP (Convention of the Parties) in Bali last December. Japan and Australia have also earned more than their share of “Fossil of the Day” awards for the antedeluvian positions they have been taking.
The former European champions of progress are also backsliding badly. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, once a green leader in the European Union is retreating from her agenda under pressure from German industries demanding recompense for what they complain were the costs of her climate change policies.
As a result of the relative disarray, and the necessary delay as the Obama team consolidates its power, the expectations for this COP began low and went lower. But government and non-governmental delegates alike are urging optimism.
“There is always a wave of fear and loathing at these things,” says Greenpeace’s Davies. Bali was crashing into pointlessness until the last night - and previous COPs were similarly strained, with negotiations grinding on past the “last day” on several occasions.
“This (process) is difficult, but it was always going to be difficult,” Davies says. “The issues are incredibly complex. But to put all this into perspective, the amazing thing is that in spite of the Bush years, we have kept this boat afloat. We have moved the dialogue forward.”
So, Obama’s absence has lowered expectations. Few people were anticipating big results from this meeting. But that will make the incremental progress all the more important.
“We’re hoping for a robust schedule with some hard deadlines for the coming year,” Davies says.
There is a lot of work to do before next year’s convention in Copenhagen, where the document replacing the Kyoto Accord must finally be written. Everyone here seems to agree that ANY progress toward that goal will have made the journey worthwhile.
Richard Littlemore is in Poznan reporting for DeSmoglog. He is the first blogger to be ever given full media credentials by the United Nations.