At U.N. headquarters in New York today [9/24/07], Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is convening a meeting of heads of state and delegates from more than 150 countries to discuss the next steps in addressing global climate change. Later in the week [9/27-8], the White House hosts a climate summit with leaders of the world's biggest polluting nations. The outcome of both meetings could signal the strength of the world's political will to combat global warming.

The latest report by the U.N.'s International Panel on Climate Change left little doubt that the planet is warming and human activity is responsible. It warned that rising temperatures could have devastating consequences, including increasingly severe weather events, and droughts and floods that put the world's food supply at risk.

The Kyoto Protocol, signed in 1997, was the first global treaty to try to rein in climate-changing industrial emissions of carbon dioxide and other "greenhouse" gases. It set targets for emission reductions for industrialized countries and spurred a multi-billion dollar market in so-called "carbon-trading" that provides financial incentives to cut climate-changing emissions.

But the Kyoto Protocol, which is due to expire in 2012, has had its limitations, says Eileen Claussen, President of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change.  "The negotiations going on under Kyoto are too narrow, since they are only about commitments for a subset of developed countries. They exclude the U.S. and Australia."

Without Australia and the United States, which rejected the agreement, the Kyoto Protocol addresses just one third of global emissions. And, developing countries like China, which soon will surpass the U.S. as the world's top polluter, are not required under Kyoto to reduce their emissions.

Claussen says leaders of the major polluting nations invited to the White House summit are coming with the hope that the United States will join in the negotiations at the December U.N. Climate Change Conference in Bali. "[They] hope that there has actually been a real change in the administration, hope that they can engage the U.S. more broadly in a framework." She says the Europeans have not given up their desire "for a mandate coming out of Bali and binding commitments at least from developed countries and in reality also from the major developing countries."

The Bush Administration has long supported voluntary emission reductions, both internationally and domestically. But lacking any federal mandate for compulsory cuts, individual American states have led the way to control carbon emissions. Also, a growing number of large companies who see carbon constraints as inevitable, support regulated carbon caps  And, Claussen says, since the Democratic party took control of the U.S. Congress last year, several bipartisan bills have been introduced that would require emissions cuts.

"I think that there is a small possibility that we could have legislation in the U.S. by the end of next spring [June 2008]. I think that it is inevitable that we have it by the end of 2010."

Claussen believes this will put the United States in a very different position to negotiate.

Elliot Diringer, director of International Strategies at the Pew Center, believes mandatory U.S. emission cuts will likely encourage other nations to follow suit. That prospect, he says, provides a strong incentive for the U.S. to stay engaged with new international negotiations. "Because we will want to make sure that our efforts are being matched by the other major economies, both for environmental reasons so that we achieve the long-term objective, but also for competitiveness reasons."

As the leaders meeting in New York and Washington look beyond Kyoto, they'll need to commit to new environmental policies that can be supported by all nations, but especially by developing countries, says the Pew Center's Eileen Claussen: "A country like China, for example, already has some ambitious national policies, an energy intensity goal, renewable energy targets and fuel economy standards for cars that are stronger than those here in the United States. What if China were to commit to fully implementing these policies in a binding international treaty?" she asks.

What is key, Claussen adds, is that commitments are "credible, quantifiable and verifiable."

Eileen Claussen is hopeful that both climate summits will strengthen the international commitment to combat global warming, and set the stage for the new multilateral agreements to be hammered out at the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Bali later this year.