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Obama's Copenhagen Speech Falls Flat--But Does That Really Matter?

Earlier this morning, President Obama gave his long-awaited speech at the Copenhagen summit, and… it was largely panned as a dud. No thrilling specifics, no new concessions or announcements, just a by-the-numbers reiteration of the U.S. position (we'll cut emissions roughly 17 percent by 2020 and, as Hillary Clinton declared yesterday, contribute to a $100-billion-per-year international climate fund for developing countries). He certainly didn't sound like a climate deal was imminent.

But how much does that really matter? The real substance of the climate talks, after all, is being thrashed out behind closed doors, not in rousing speeches. And news about the closed-door talks has been relatively sparse. Julian Wong has an interesting post suggesting that the United States and China may be making real progress on the whole transparency question—finding ways to verify that developing countries actually follow through on their emissions pledges. That would be a huge deal, if it pans out. On the flip side, various draft agreements have been filtering out to the press, but all of them have significant gaps—they all nod to that 2°C goal, but fall short in the specifics.

In any case, more details will no doubt dribble out throughout the day, but Andrew Light has a good broader take on what to expect from the final hours of Copenhagen:

Now that Obama has spoken it is clear that we now have two options:

1. Either this session and this meeting will not result in any agreement, not even an interim agreement, and will turn into a litany of boasting of national actions, or

2. The delegates will take up Obama’s challenge to actually get an agreement out of this meeting and move forward beyond what he characterizes as the same old arguments between developed and developing countries that have stymied these meetings for close to two decades.

…If we don’t get something out of this process then we need to move the conversation to mitigating emissions to an alternative forum where the major emitters can talk more directly with each other. Decisions on adaptation, forestry, and institutions for technology transfer can stay in the UN process....

So, get settled folks, the debate will go all day long. A negotiator friend of mine has said that in his experience things have a way of moving when the cameras are turned on as they are right now, and proposals are put on the table so that you get the yes and no votes on the record and out in the open. ... I expect that the debate will go into tomorrow and that Secretary Clinton, a surprise addition to the US delegation this week, will stick around to try to seal a deal. Let’s hope she is successful.