Obama owes favour to Doha climate change talks

 There’s only one serious uncertainty overhanging the UN climate talks starting in Doha on Monday.

How will the legacy of Hurricane Sandy make its presence felt?

Forget the Kyoto Protocol. The only significant party, the European Union, has achieved its emissions reduction target even before the second commitment period starts.

Forget the remains of the Bali Action Plan. The dream was lost in Copenhagen four long years ago. And forget the $100 billion promise that was cobbled together at that wretched time.

Forget even the much-vaunted promise of a new agreement, snatched from the flames that so nearly engulfed the Durban COP last year. Constructing the Durban Platform for 2020 is far too late.

No, the only swing factor in Doha is how Obama will repay his debt to Sandy. He owes the climate change folks big time.

That unscheduled reference to “the destructive power of a warming planet” in the President’s acceptance speech was the giveaway that, deep down, he knew that the hurricane sent him back to the White House.

Many observers have attributed Obama’s victory to brilliant computer algorithms crunching social media to pluck reluctant Democrats from their sofas into the polling booths. The idea of powerful nerds behind the scenes makes for breathless journalism.

The hurricane was a far more incisive weapon of electoral destruction. It hit Romney right where it hurt most; he had no answer to the replays of his mocking jokes about climate change.

Obama will move the US goalposts on global warming. How he does it and when remains very uncertain. He might send a message to COP18, maybe even record it on video – who knows whether Air Force 1 might be summoned for a trip to the Middle East.

More realistically, the path to concession lies through deals with China. I bet on some slight but telling start down that path over the coming fortnight. Europe will be delighted and the rest will do whatever China says.

That leaves us with our old friends Jonathan Pershing and Todd Stern, the US special envoys on climate change since the Copenhagen debacle. They’re great guys who I believe care as much about the threat of global warming as all of us. They’ve served their country loyally in a cause of agreeing nothing until everything is agreed – and making sure it stays that way.

Which is why Pershing and Stern are history as far as climate negotiations are concerned. No one would ever believe any concessionary tunes that they might play. We may not be told that until the new year but I suspect the Doha COP is the time for goodbyes.