President-elect Barack Obama sent an explicit message Tuesday to international negotiators of a new global warming treaty that, under his administration, the U.S would move to slash its own greenhouse gas emissions by more than 80% by mid-century, and "help lead the world toward a new era of global cooperation on climate change."
The videotaped message, played to a conference on climate change in Los Angeles, electrified more than 700 delegates from 19 countries gathered to debate strategies for cutting planet-warming pollution.
"It looks as if we're about to have a climate emissions Terminator in Washington," panel moderator Steve Howard, chief executive of the London-based nonprofit the Climate Group, told the conference, which was convened by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Several European countries reportedly approached Obama's transition team to ask that he signal his intentions to diplomats who will gather in Poland next month to craft a successor to the 2005 Kyoto Protocol. Some environmentalists have called publicly on the president-elect to attend the talks, even though the Bush administration will be in charge of the U.S. delegation.
In his message, Obama pledged "a new chapter in America's leadership on climate change . . . that will start with a federal cap and trade system. We will establish strong annual targets that set us on a course to reduce emissions to their 1990 levels by 2020 and reduce them an additional 80% by 2050."
The pledge echoed Obama's campaign positions, but tying them explicitly to the Poland talks "puts wings on the negotiations," said Annie Petsonk, international counsel to the Environmental Defense Fund, a U.S. advocacy group. "It sends a clear message to the international community that the U.S. will back cap and trade."
Under the carbon trading system adopted under the Kyoto Protocol, nations agree to set a limit on their greenhouse gas emissions but allow industries to trade pollution allowances among themselves to reduce the cost of meeting the targets.
The United States is the only industrialized nation that has declined to join the Kyoto agreement. Last spring, national legislation to cap climate emissions failed in the U.S. Senate, amid lobbying from utilities, oil companies and automakers.
The Bush administration has contended that the U.S. should not be forced to slash emissions as long as fast-developing nations such as China, India and Brazil refuse to accept firm caps on their emissions. China has surpassed the U.S. as the world's leading greenhouse gas polluter.
But Obama, in his taped message, pointed to rising sea levels, record drought, spreading famine and stronger storms as evidence of climate change. "The science is beyond dispute, and the facts are clear," he said.
He added, "Let me also say a special word to the delegates from around the world who will gather at Poland next month: Your work is vital to the planet. While I won't be president at the time of your meeting, and while the United States has only one president at a time, I've asked members of Congress who are attending the conference as observers to report back to me on what they learn there."
In a clear reference to the Bush administration's stance, Obama declared, "Once I take office, you can be sure that the United States will once again engage vigorously in these negotiations. . . . Delay is no longer an option. Denial is no longer an acceptable response."
Tuesday's gathering included another development. Representatives from four Brazilian states and two Indonesian provinces signed an agreement with California, Illinois and Wisconsin to work cooperatively to reduce the carbon emissions that escape into the atmosphere from tropical deforestation.
California officials say that U.S. companies may be able to meet part of their obligations to reduce global warming by paying to preserve tropical forests. In many cases, that would be less expensive than installing equipment in U.S. factories or building alternative energy facilities.
But to set up such an international credit system would require technical expertise and a method to ensure that measurable carbon emissions from cutting or burning trees are being prevented.
Treaty negotiators in Poland, and in Copenhagen, where the next agreement is to be signed in 2009, will discuss whether and how to include incentives for tropical nations to preserve their forests.
Schwarzenegger plans to issue a declaration today signed by 12 U.S. governors, as well as provincial leaders from Mexico, Canada, Brazil, Indonesia and India, to share technology and seek strategies to reduce emissions in high-polluting industries.