WASHINGTON — With the clock ticking on the high-stakes Copenhagen climate summit, US President Barack Obama will try to salvage fading hopes for a deal as he meets this month with the leaders of China and India.
Obama on Sunday starts his closely watched debut trip to China. A week later, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh comes to Washington in the first full-fledged state visit of Obama's presidency.
The United States is also dispatching Energy Secretary Steven Chu to both emerging powers in hopes of making headway ahead of the December 7-18 summit in the Danish capital.
The world's three most populous nations have all vowed action on climate change but are deeply at odds over the shape of a Copenhagen deal, which was meant to be a new global treaty but now looks set to offer a framework at best.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has even threatened to boycott Copenhagen unless the three nations move forward on their positions.
"A failure of the world climate conference in Copenhagen in December would set international environmental efforts back by years. We cannot afford this," Merkel said.
Obama has sharply changed US climate policy but, like his predecessor George W. Bush, has joined the Europeans, Japan and other rich nations in demanding that China and India act.
"No country holds the fate of the Earth in its hands more than China," Todd Stern, the US climate envoy, told a recent congressional hearing.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in Singapore before joining Obama in China, held out hope that compromise was possible.
"If we all exert maximum effort and embrace the right blend of pragmatism and principle, I believe we can secure a strong outcome at Copenhagen," Clinton said.
China and India argue that rich nations bear historic responsibility for climate change and that developing nations therefore should not be legally bound to cut carbon emissions blamed for rising temperatures -- which UN scientists say will put entire species at risk if unchecked.
China has surpassed the United States as the world's top carbon emitter and India by most measures ranks fourth. Both nations appear eager not to be accused as the spoilers in Copenhagen.
President Hu Jintao told a September summit at the United Nations that China would reduce the intensity of its carbon emissions.
Singh has vowed that India will never produce more carbon per capita than developed nations. The average Indian is responsible for only one-17th the emissions of the average American, according to US government figures.
Some experts and policymakers are hopeful that climate change will emerge not as an obstacle but as a catalyst for closer US relations with China and India -- a key priority for Obama.
In a recent study, the Asia Society and the left-leaning Center for American Progress proposed that China and the United States team up on carbon capture -- the largely untested concept of stopping emissions before they get out.
With China already eyeing the field, the think-tanks said that the initiative would create green jobs and control emissions from coal, a necessity in any serious global effort to arrest climate change.
"We are at a tipping point, I think, both in the quest for remedies to climate change and also in Sino-US policy," said Orville Schell, a prominent author and director of the Asia Society's Center on US-China Relations.
"We are at a moment when there could be a dramatic shift in how the two countries relate to each other and I think the most likely catalytic agent in such a relationship will be whether we can cooperate on climate change," he said.
Serious US cooperation with developing nations may also help break another key roadblock -- easing opposition in US Congress to imposing legal caps on carbon emissions.
The Senate is unlikely to approve legislation in time for Copenhagen, although Senator John Kerry has promised to provide at least an outline of the eventual US system to fight global warming.
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