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Obama Administration May Thwart Climate Talks, Groups Say

Arctic Sea Ice
Arctic sea ice influences the global climate, since 80 percent of the sunlight that strikes it is reflected back to space. Photographer: Pim Viuk

The U.S. is threatening to block progress at climate treaty talks three years after President Barack Obama pledged to usher in a new era of cooperation in fighting global warming, U.S. environmental leaders say.

The heads of more than a dozen organizations want Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to order U.S. officials at climate talks in Durban, South Africa, to show more flexibility on efforts to craft a new, legally binding global climate accord, according to a Nov. 29 letter that the groups sent to Clinton.

The criticism marks the U.S. environmental movement’s strongest rebuke yet of Obama’s climate policies. In one of his first speeches after winning the 2008 election, Obama pledged to “engage vigorously” in global climate talks and help lead countries in a push to cut greenhouse-gas emissions and avert irreversible, human-induced climate shifts.

“Three years later, America risks being viewed not as a global leader on climate change, but as a major obstacle to progress,” according to the letter from groups including the Natural Resources Defense Council, Union of Concerned Scientists, Environmental Defense Fund and Sierra Club.

The U.S. is “committed to meeting the climate challenge,” Obama’s lead climate negotiator, Todd Stern, said in an e-mailed statement today.

“There is, of course, much more to be done, but we have made an important start,” Stern said, referring to a nonbinding climate agreement reached in Cancun, Mexico, last year that includes actions from all the world’s biggest greenhouse-gas emitters.

‘Legal Symmetry’

U.S. officials at United Nations-led talks in Durban have rejected the European Union’s proposal to negotiate a new legally binding climate treaty for all countries by 2015 and have it take effect no later than 2020. The EU say it won’t participate in a second phase of the existing Kyoto Protocol unless countries agree to a “road map” to 2015.

The U.S. says preconditions must be met before it begins talks for a binding accord. These include “legal symmetry,” or ensuring that developed countries and fast-growing nations such as China and India take on equivalent obligations.

China’s lead negotiator, Su Wei, said in an interview yesterday that it’s too early to say whether China would be willing to accept a legally binding commitment after 2020.

Su also said it’s essential for industrial nations to sign up for another round of emissions reductions under Kyoto, whose first phase of limits expire next year. Japan, Canada and Russia already have rejected extending the treaty.

Biggest Threat

While the U.S. is the only industrialized country never to ratify Kyoto and says it won’t weigh in on those negotiations, the Obama administration’s opposition to negotiating a new binding deal under current conditions may be the biggest threat to the treaty’s fate.

“The U.S. is a key block in this ‘Kyoto Triangle’ in Durban,” NRDC’s Jake Schmidt said in an interview. “To move ahead you have to get the U.S. to back off its position and accept a vague mandate.”

Environmentalists say the U.S. is being unnecessarily obstinate and should show more flexibility.

“The U.S. should be working with the EU, China and others to make this type of mandate possible, not rejecting it out of hand because it doesn’t guarantee all of the U.S. negotiating objections,” the letter to Clinton says. “The U.S. shouldn’t require countries to agree to the specific parameters of the final agreement before negotiations even begin.”

The U.S.’s position affects other countries’ willingness to forge a new global accord aimed at averting dangerous climate change, according to Brazil’s chief climate negotiator, Andre Correa do Lago.

U.S. Absence

“No other party wants to get involved in some kind of negotiation that will end with the absence of the United States,” he said in an interview today from Durban.

Environmental groups also claim that the U.S.’s stance on climate finance may cause the talks to fail. The U.S. is seen as potentially blocking efforts to move ahead on an agreement to raise $100 billion a year from developed countries by 2020 and establish a Green Climate Fund to help vulnerable countries combat climate change.

Stern told reporters in Washington last week that such concerns are unwarranted.

“The U.S. is a strong advocate of the Green Climate Fund,” he said on Nov. 22.

The U.S., along with Saudi Arabia, was seen by some environmental advocates as blocking a UN committee’s report on recommendations for the fund. Stern said the U.S. had issues with some aspects of the report though he’s “confident” they will be worked out during the two-week talks.

The report, which has been submitted to the UN body overseeing climate issues though not adopted, will be discussed today in Durban.

The U.S. says its priority in Durban is working to advance a political agreement reached last year in Cancun, Mexico, that includes actions from all major greenhouse-gas emitters through 2020. U.S. negotiator Jonathan Pershing told reporters on Nov. 28 that the Cancun plan could possibly become the foundation for a new post-2020 climate deal.

Kim Chipman in Durban, South Africa at

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