Obama lands in Copenhagen and wows no one

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The 119th head of state to arrive in Copenhagen.

COPENHAGEN–Air Force One landed at Copenhagen airport one minute past nine this morning, and President Barack Obama was whisked immediately into a mini-summit with heads of state from 19 of the nations most critical to these negotiations.

The scheduled time for his speech to the plenary came and went, and hope, that Obama byword, grew that the leaders might be coming to some consensus.

We knew that something unprecedented had occurred last night, that heads of state from many nations had met until at least 2 a.m., negotiating among themselves mankind’s collective response to climate change. Could they be briefing Obama on a new proposal? Could he move them, whether through charm or argument, from their steadfast positions?

When Danish Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen called the plenary session to order almost two hours late, the 15,000 exhausted delegates, journalists, and UN staff crowded into this complex were brimming with anticipation. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon stepped first to the lecturn and fueled the optimism:

“The finishing line is in sight. Now our discussions are bearing fruit. Never has the world united on such a scale. The world’s leaders are all together here. The world is watching. Every sector of society is mobilized: faith groups, CEOs, NGOs, and individual citizens. We are closer than ever to the world’s first truly global agreement to limit and reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” he said.

But that, it turned out, was just Ban Ki-Moon being Ban Ki-Moon. As soon as Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva began speaking it became clear that the presence of Obama, the change president, had changed nothing.

“I should say very bluntly to all of you that I am a little bit frustrated. Why so? Because for a long time we have been discussing the climate change issue, and more and more we see that the problem is even more severe than we could have ever imagined,” he said. And then this:

“I’m not sure if some angel or some wise man will come down to this plenary and will put in our minds the intelligence that we lacked until now. I don’t know if that’s going to be possible.”

Obama was called to the podium next. Unlike other world leaders, who were seated in the audience, he emerged through a door from backstage. There was restrained, polite applause, not the kind of welcome we have seen the world offer this president. His EPA chief, by contrast, received a standing ovation at her first appearance in Copenhagen.

Before Obama disappeared again through that door, he read a speech that seemed only to reiterate the positions the U.S. has held since these talks began. And near the start, he said this:

“The question before us is no longer the nature of the challenge – the question is our capacity to meet it. For while the reality of climate change is not in doubt, as we stand here today with the world watching us, I must admit our ability to take collective action is in doubt right now.”

(Full text of Obama’s speech.)

It has become clear that no matter how many cabinet members the United States sends to Copenhagen, no matter how many spiffy displays it sets up, no matter how many celebrity politicians it sends, no matter how much impressive security it marshalls around them, no one here will be very much impressed with America until it takes full responsibility for its contribution to climate change–for it has been the biggest polluter in the history of the world–no one will be very much impressed until it cuts its emissions more severely than it has proposed and offers more money to the developing world that its pollution has put at risk of devastation.

And neither of those notions is likely to get past our Senate.

It already shows, as Obama has often complained, that something has happened to America’s standing as an innovator.

When representatives from the entire world pass in and out of this conference, they see windmills on the horizon generating electricity, they ride on clean and comfortable trains and Metros and buses that run frequently and reliably. They sleep in a city where there are often more bicyclists–even in December–than motorists.

The day is not over here, but so far, this has been a day when leaders like Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, chairman of the African delegation, hardly a model of virtue, are able to put the U.S. to shame:

“We know what we have to do to achieve progress today. We need a political will to do so. Failure is not and should not be an option. The nations of the developing world should not be condemned to wallow in chaos, because that would be tantamount to genocide through inaction.”

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