European leaders have expressed hopes Obama would quickly break from the Bush administration and support a global agreement to limit greenhouse emissions blamed for global warming. But some are tempering their expectations that the United States can shift quickly enough to sign a deal by the end of next year.
Though Obama has supported the kind of limits on emissions envisioned by international negotiators and spurned by President George W. Bush, it appears that Congress may not be ready to back him immediately.
The top European Union official in Washington, John Bruton, says there is growing concern that Congress could upend a global deal to succeed the Kyoto Protocol that they hope to sign at a meeting in Copenhagen at the end of 2009.
"What many are worried about is that the United States won't be ready for Copenhagen," Bruton, the EU commission's ambassador in Washington, said in an interview.
Bruton, a former Irish prime minister, said it will be very hard to negotiate a treaty unless Congress has signaled that it would back it. Any treaty agreed to by U.S. negotiators would have to be ratified by the Senate to take effect and the full Congress would have to implement the curbs on emissions. Bruton says the U.S. will not be taken seriously unless Congress passes legislation with some caps before Copenhagen.
"The absence of such legislation would make Copenhagen very difficult," he said.
The 27-nation European Union already has agreed to reduce its emissions by 20 percent by 2020 and is looking for a similar commitment from the U.S. Negotiators also hope to include in a deal quickly-developing countries such as China and India, which, like the United States, are leading emitters of greenhouse gases. Bruton said that is unlikely without U.S. action.
"I think that the idea that the United States would be able to persuade the Indians or the Chinese to make painful commitments in Copenhagen when it hasn't made any commitments itself in the form of legislation is somewhat naive, to put it mildly," he said.
Already, an influential senator has said legislation next year was unlikely.
Sen. Jeff Bingaman, the chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, said this month that while every effort should be made to cap greenhouse gases, the economic crisis, the transition to a new administration and the complexity of setting up a nationwide market for carbon pollution permits preclude action in 2009.
That reality could lead to disappointment in Europe, which has high expectations for Obama.
"A lot of Europeans don't understand that a president is not all-powerful in the American political system," Bruton said. "What I would hope is that President Obama and the congressional leadership would be able to fast-forward this legislation so that it will be passed in 2009."
Another senior European official, foreign policy chief Javier Solana, said this week in Washington that he expects Obama to spur Congress to pass legislation when he takes office.
"I think they will be very fast," he said. "I don't expect to be disappointed."