WASHINGTON — Joining climate change negotiations for the first time, the Obama administration is trying to convince other countries that the U.S. does care about global warming and wants to shape an international accord.
After eight years on the sidelines, the U.S. says it is ready for a central role in developing a new agreement to slash greenhouse gases. But whether the U.S, which is the second largest source of heat-trapping pollution, is ready to sign onto a deal by year's end could depend on Congress.
The State Department sent climate envoy Todd Stern to Bonn, Germany, for the first of a series of largely technical meetings that begin Sunday. The talks are hoped to lay the groundwork for an agreement to be signed in December in Denmark.
Stern, in a telephone interview Thursday with The Associated Press from London, said it was important for him to attend and "make the first statement on behalf of the United States and say we're back, we're serious, we're here, we're committed and we're going to try to get this thing done."
He added, "We want to convey that we mean it."
Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, which is hosting the Bonn talks, said participants "will be very excited" to hear Stern outline the basic principles that will guide the U.S.
Other countries are expecting a new tone after eight years during which the Bush administration made clear its disdain for any climate discussions aimed at securing a commitment to mandatory greenhouse gas reductions.
This time the U.S. delegation represents the views of a White House committed to mandatory action on climate change. And unlike 1997, when the Kyoto Protocol was drafted, there is now a Democratic-controlled Congress moving to embrace mandatory limits on greenhouse gases.
Back then, the United States lacked support for mandatory actions to achieve the reductions the U.S. had signed on to. Congress never ratified that accord and the Bush administration later rejected it outright, citing the lack of participation from developing countries.
That lack of involvement and the cost of emission cuts, in form of higher energy bills, have dominated the U.S. debate over Kyoto for years. Those issues have not have not disappeared.
But President Barack Obama has acted to reduce U.S. greenhouse gases and wants Congress to pass a cap-and-trade program that would cut global warming pollution 80 percent by mid-century.
"The president has embarked on a strong domestic program already and there is much more coming," Stern said at a briefing Friday in Berlin.
Stern said the U.S. position on an international agreement will be framed by what happens in Congress. The reductions expected to be required by Congress will be the basis for what the U.S. can commit to reducing, he said.
But Congress already is trying to address the recession, health care and other priorities. "This will be a big, big fight to get the domestic piece done," Stern conceded.
Many European countries want the U.S. to adopt stronger short-term targets, equal to a 25 percent to 40 percent reduction from 1990 levels by 2020. Obama has called for reaching 1990 levels by then, a roughly 15 percent cut.
Stern has warned European leaders that their demands will lead to stalemate.
In Germany, the U.S. team is expected to spend most of its time listening and forming relationships rather than discussing concrete proposals.
That "is unfortunate given the intense timetable between now and Copenhagen, but understandable," said Jennifer Havercamp, who leads Environmental Defense Fund's international climate negotiations team. "It will not achieve a lot of substantive progress in the negotiations because the Obama team is so new."
Associated Press writer Vanessa Gera contributed reporting from Berlin. On the Net: U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change: http://unfccc.int/2860.php; White House: www.whitehouse.gov/agenda/energy_and_environment/