Categorized | COP15, Climate Change, Features

Obama, Aspiring Climate Crusader

Posted on 18 December 2009 by editor

President Barack Obama in the Oval Office, Dec. 17, 2009. Credit: White House Photo/ Pete Souza

President Barack Obama in the Oval Office, Dec. 17, 2009. Credit: White House Photo/ Pete Souza

Analysis by Matthew Berger

SAN FRANCISCO (IPS/TerraViva) When then-U.S. Vice President Al Gore arrived in Kyoto in 1997, the climate – of both the planet and the climate change debate – was much different. The biggest sign of how this issue has evolved in the 12 years since is the presence of U.S. president and newly-anointed Nobel laureate Barack Obama at Copenhagen’s Bella Centre Friday.

Since 1997, the world has sweated through the hottest decade on record, starting in 1998, which the U.N.’s World Meteorological Organisation has said was the hottest year ever recorded. But the pressure against addressing these climatic changes – and their consequences – has been just as stifling as the weather.

After eight years in which the White House’s policy toward climate change was largely one of denial – if not outright obfuscation of evidence – it has not been hard for Obama’s climate credentials to outshine his predecessor’s.

For the most part, Obama has not disappointed those who had hoped he would bring a more science-based, long-term-minded approach to climate issues, but one major hole remains in his résumé – Washington has yet to enact a law that would cap U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

Obama has made headway. The U.S. House of Representatives passed an emissions-reducing bill in June. The U.S. Senate seems like it will be able to pass its version of climate legislation in early 2010.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which falls under the indirect authority of the White House, acted on a court ruling that had been ignored under President George ‘. Bush’s administration and declared greenhouse gases a public danger – on the first day of the Copenhagen talks, in fact.

But the fact the U.S. has nothing in place yet is one of the major factors slowing progress at Copenhagen.

“It appears that we are waiting for some senators in the U.S. Congress to conclude before we can consider this issue properly,” said Tuvalu’s lead negotiator Ian Fry at the summit Saturday. “It is an irony of the modern world that the fate of the world is being determined by some senators in the U.S. Congress.”

That Congress has dragged its feet is clear, but it is also clear to those who have done the math that even the emissions level targets Obama has said he will bring with him to Copenhagen – albeit based on numbers in the Congressional bills – are insufficient according to the science.

Announcing the president’s decision last month to attend the talks, the White House said the U.S. would aim for an agreement that would reduce U.S. emission 17 percent from 2005 levels by 2020. This would mean about a three percent reduction from 1990 levels, the base year used by most other industrialised countries.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has recommended cutting emissions 25 to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020.

Still, climate change has been the main issue on which Obama has diverged from Bush. In his first 11 months in office, Obama has, in part, delivered on campaign promises to take a lead on mitigating climate change, but these promises still remain only partially fulfilled as the main achievement – a greenhouse gas emissions cap for the world’s second-biggest emitter – remains conspicuously unaccomplished.

Among the accomplishments already in the books, though, are investing a large chunk of economic stimulus money in the clean energy sector, announcing new fuel economy standards for vehicles and encouraging better fuel efficiency by signing the “Cash for Clunkers” bill, and agreeing with international leaders to phase out subsidies for the fossil fuel industry.

After a couple weeks of dithering and speculation, Obama also decided to personally attend the Copenhagen talks, though on one of the early, inconsequential days of meetings. He then fulfilled the wishes of advocates of climate change action a bit more fully by announcing he would attend on the final day when any agreements would be finalised.

This is a risky – or brave – choice politically as the blame for a failure to reach agreement can be more directly traced to Obama himself than if he had visited on the second day of talks as he had originally intended.

Obama’s first visit to Copenhagen, in early October, was an embarrassing rejection of his bid to help Chicago win the 2016 Olympics.

His more recent Scandinavian sojourn, last Wednesday, was a tightly-scripted balancing act between the realities of leading a polarised country engaged in a polarising war – he had recently committed 30,000 extra troops to the war in Afghanistan – and the expectations of international observers – who were awarding him the Nobel Peace Prize.

Obama faces a similar tightrope in Copenhagen. As an icon of hope, he is expected to be a game-changer at “Hopenhagen,” but he must also acknowledge, before a global audience, that the realities of Washington politics will only allow him to do so much.

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