The Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty that aims at climate-change mitigation, expires in 2012, 13 years after its adoption at a U.N. conference in 1997 and seven years after it officially came into force. On Dec. 3, delegations from around the world will converge on Bali, Indonesia, to develop a framework for upcoming talks on the treaty's replacement.
One of the key factors this two-week conference must settle revolves around the question of who must participate in curbing emissions and whether the final agreements will be mandatory or voluntary. Of particular concern is the possibility developing countries may be left off the hook, said Frank Loy, U.S. undersecretary of state for global affairs from 1998 to 2001.
"My personal concern is that (the conference in) Bali will do too much, (meaning) it will end up with some language that will excuse in some fashion the meaningful participation of developing countries," said Loy, now a board member at the Nature Conservatory, Environmental Defense and Pew Center for Global Climate Change.
If developing countries are precluded from making real commitments in the final agreement that will result from the seed planted in Bali, the United States will most likely decline to sign. Similar reasons lie at the root of the U.S. refusal to ratify the Kyoto Protocol.
"It will not be possible for America, regardless of the party or power in the White House, to participate in an agreement in which there is not some level of commitment on the part of the developing countries," Loy said.
For these exact reasons, much of the pressure to keep developing countries from taking on serious obligations may come from the White House itself, Loy said.
"The current negotiators under the current administration would be quite happy to see language that didn't make the developing countries (make commitments)," because this would provide an excuse not to ratify any resulting agreement, he said.
While developing countries should not face the same demands as industrialized nations, some level of participation should be required, Loy said, particularly a focus on deforestation. The practice causes 20 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions worldwide and occurs largely in the developing world.
If the United States uses the lack of participation on the part of developing countries as a reason not to sign the final agreement, it will be "hiding behind the skirts" of less-developed nations, said Timothy Wirth, also a former U.S. undersecretary of state for global affairs whose time on the job coincided with pre-Kyoto Protocol negotiations.
"If the United States government were to say that (developing countries need not make commitments), and they developed an alliance of people that said that, they will have been successful at submarining the whole conference," said Wirth, now the president of the U.N. Foundation. "I think that's the biggest danger."
If, instead, the conference produces "fair and effective commitments" from all the major greenhouse gas emitters, including developing countries like China, the conference will be a success, Wirth said.
However, White House officials argue the administration is committed to the conference's success.
"(The administration) is committed to finding a path forward to decreasing greenhouse gas emissions that doesn't hurt economic growth," said Kristen Hellmer, spokeswoman for the White House Council on Environmental Quality. "We'll work with our partners on developing a road map."
Hellmer told United Press International a "strong delegation" will be sent to the meeting but the actual members of the delegation have yet to be announced, with the exception of Jim Connaughton, chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality, who is scheduled to attend.
While Hellmer said she would not speculate on the nature of commitments the administration hopes will be included in the final agreement, she said the president has expressed the desire that it be inclusive and comprehensive.
"The president has made clear he's looking for a post-2012 commitment that includes developing countries," Hellmer said.
After hosting a meeting for the world's major emitters in September, the administration hopes it can play a leading role in the Bali process, Hellmer said.
However, in order for the United States to lead the way in climate-change talks, it will first have to make significant headway on the home front, said Eileen Claussen, former assistant secretary of state for oceans and international environmental and scientific affairs.
One particular bill, America's Climate Security Act of 2007, has particularly potent potential for convincing the world the United States is serious about tackling climate change, said Claussen, who is now president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change and Strategies for the Global Environment.
"People in other countries will be watching this," she said. "(If it passes), it will be a clear signal of were the next administration will be" on the issue.
The bill, sponsored by Sens. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., and John Warner, R-Va., passed in subcommittee on Nov. 1 and is scheduled for full committee markup in the Committee on Environment and Public Works on Dec. 5.
The bill aims at cutting U.S. emissions by 60 percent to 80 percent of current levels by 2050, among other things. Its primary strength lies in the detailed program it includes to achieve the stated goals, Lieberman told UPI.
"It not only subscribes the U.S. to a strong environmental goal, it also describes how the U.S. will achieve that goal," he said. "(If it passes), that will show that the U.S. really is gearing up to become the world leader in curbing global warming."