Why Obama should put a climate-sceptical Senator on the Copenhagen delegation

With Senate climate legislation set to be introduced within a week, it’s gradually sinking in fully around the rest of the world that however loved-up we may all feel about President Obama and however welcome his commitment on climate change may be, it’s going to be the Senate that really determines the US’s negotiating position in the run-up to the Copenhagen summit. Which means, as the FT’s Edward Luce observed last week, that

Unless something miraculous happens on Capitol Hill, Mr Obama is almost certain to undershoot expectations at the climate change summit in Denmark.

While the Waxman / Markey bill that passed the House wasn’t exactly great – only a 17% emissions cut by 2020, against 2005 rather than 1990 levels, and with 85% of permits given away for free – things look even worse in the upper house:

The Senate is very unlikely to pass an equivalent bill between now and December. Against the likes of Mr Kerry and Ms Boxer are a growing caucus of centrist Democrats, from states such as Virginia, Nebraska and Michigan, which have either strong coal-based manufacturing or agricultural lobbies. Most ominously for supporters of the bill was the ascension last week of Blanche Lincoln, the embattled Democratic senator from Arkansas, to head the Senate agricultural committee. Ms Lincoln, who is facing a re-election battle next year, has described the House cap and trade bill as a “complete non-starter”.

So here’s an idea.

First, the Administration should identify a Senator who who’s firmly in the ‘no’ camp on climate change, but who also commands the respect of  both sides of the House as an experienced, thoughtful statesman of manifest personal integrity. Someone like, say, Robert Byrd (D, West Virginia) – who also has the distinction, incidentally, of having co-drafted the 1997 Byrd Hagel Resolution that effectively ruled out US participation in Kyoto.

Then, President Obama should invite that Senator to be a full member of the US negotiating team at Copenhagen.

Why take such a step? Well, for one thing, it merely reflects the reality mentioned above: that the Senate is the key determinant of the political space the Administration has to play with on climate. But more importantly, it would achieve two things.

First, it would be an arresting, game-changing move to reach out to political constituencies that are likely to mobilise to oppose any climate deal – a smart piece of engagement that might just help to defuse some of the healthcare town hall-type passions that we can expect the prospect of a climate deal to ignite.

Second, it would bring the global perspective into the Senate a little more – at a point when it’s easy for politicking Senators to focus exclusively on domestic constituencies and ignore the views of the rest of the world more or less completely.

As fellow UN nerds will aready have realised, the strategy I’m proposing here consciously echoes President Roosevelt’s decision to include the Republican Senator, Arthur Vandenberg, as a member of the US negotating team at the San Francisco talks that led to the creation of the UN.

Vandenberg had spent most of the 1930s as a firm isolationist. When, by 1943, there was consensus across both Houses that the US should be part of an international peacekeeping organisation, internationalists feared that Vandenberg would scuttle US participation.

But on January 10, 1945, Vandenberg made an astonishing speech in the Senate, in which he came out in favour of a United Nations – observing, in a memorable phrase that could today be applied to climate change, that “our oceans have ceased to be moats”. As the US Senate’s own history of the moment notes,

The resoundingly favorable response from the press, and from senators of both parties, somewhat overwhelmed Vandenberg, who later explained his remarks with the self-effacing comment that “I felt that things were drifting. . . . Somebody had to say something, and I felt it could be more effectively said by a member of the opposition.” His speech did not, as [New York Times correspondent James B.] Reston later observed, “change the views of the American people .. . it was the warm and, in his experience, unprecedented reception of that speech by the American people that changed him. Nothing that he had ever said on the Senate floor before that time produced such a response, and it wasn’t that his proposals were particularly new. . . . Only when Vandenberg, the symbol of isolation, came forward with the idea did it become a major factor in American and world politics.” [emphasis added]

That’s why President Obama should invite Senator Byrd, or someone with comparable credentials on climate action – opposition, independence, integrity – onto the US delegation.

True, Roosevelt only put Vandenberg on the delegation after his speech expressing support for the creation of a UN. But if advocates of tough action on climate change are confident of our case – and we should be – then I think we have nothing to lose by engaging the most statesmanlike of our opponents, in the anticipation of their becoming allies.