WASHINGTON The Obama administration, weakened by political setbacks, will likely limit its role in global climate talks this month to building trust with other big polluters rather than blazing an ambitious path on binding carbon emissions cuts.
The Senate failed to pass a climate bill this summer and Republicans won control of the House of Representatives in November elections, putting out of reach any big moves by President Barack Obama to tackle global warming until at least 2013.
That means U.S. climate negotiators at the talks, being held from November 29 to December 10 in Cancun, Mexico, lack the bargaining chips to demand that rapidly developing countries like China and India agree to binding emissions cuts.
The United States could concentrate on trying to loosen its deadlock with China on how to share the economic burden of cutting carbon emissions by teaming up with growing U.S. ally India to put pressure on Beijing.
Obama's climate envoy Todd Stern said Thursday that the talks should tackle simple goals rather than the tougher task of hashing out a deadline for new global pact with binding emissions cuts.
Some countries have wanted the talks to set a deadline because the Kyoto Protocol, which requires most developed countries to cut emissions, runs out in 2012.
Instead, the United States, which never joined the Kyoto pact, will reiterate its emissions reduction pledge made last year in Copenhagen. Obama pledged then that the United States, which over history has emitted more greenhouse gases than any other country, would cut the pollution about 17 percent from 2005 levels by 2020. And Obama will not withdraw that goal.
"We can see a way forward, but only based on what our leaders agreed to last year in the Copenhagen Accord," Stern said. "We're certainly not going to go back on that."
Christiana Figueres, the head of the U.N. Climate Change Secretariat, said last week that "the world certainly expects the United States to live up to that pledge."
U.S. negotiators will also seek to lay down the foundations for greater cooperation in fighting emissions on a global scale, such as aid to developing countries and transparency on emissions cuts.
But the pressure is on. If progress is not made in those areas this year in Cancun and at next year's talks in South Africa, many will question whether the U.N. process is the best arena to fight climate change particularly as scientists say 2010 will be warmest year on record.
And if Obama loses the election in 2012, there's no guarantee the winner would make action on climate change a priority.
Working on smaller items like greater transparency on emissions cuts is part of a mind shift that U.N. negotiators may be undergoing. Since talks began 15 years ago the primary focus has been establishing a binding emissions cuts.
But with China and the United States -- the world's top two greenhouse gas emitters -- not ready to agree to that, U.S. negotiators will look to move forward with other ways to strengthen international efforts, while keeping a binding pact as the ultimate goal.
"Creating the other connective tissue within a multilateral framework puts us in a better position over time to get to the binding outcomes," said Elliot Diringer of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change.
Those efforts will boil down to two areas.
First, U.S. negotiators will try to help build a support system for developing countries to cut emissions and to deal with the worst effects of climate change, such as droughts, floods and heat waves.
Those talks will include trying to build the architecture for an international carbon fund, such as where the fund would be based and who will sit on its board.
Long-term financing, forming a strategy for technology transfers, and expanding forests and protecting them from development, will also be part of that.
Second, the U.S. negotiators will work with other nations on building a system to verify emissions cuts so all can be confident that promises to do so are kept.
But even the smaller steps, such as financing, are no certain deal.
For the last two years Washington has dangled the promise of financial help for the poorest countries in climate diplomacy.
"Foreign aid, though, is at the top of the hit list for spending hawks in the new Congress," Michael Levi, a senior fellow on energy and environment at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in a blog this week.
In addition, talks on sharing green technologies could also get bogged down over intellectual property rights issues.
Still, backers of climate action hope that some progress can be made with new tactics. The United States could begin to make progress with China, by working with India. Obama recently traveled to India to strengthen bilateral ties, so working with it could be a natural fit.
India recently made a proposal to help countries verify emissions cuts, and the plan is close to what Washington wants. "If the U.S. and India can come to some common ground on that, I think it will be hard for China to not come on board," Diringer said.
(Reporting by Timothy Gardner; Editing by Russell Blinch and Eric Beech)