Thursday, November 26, 2009

Only a first move by U.S. can inject momentum into climate talks

Is this a “game-changer” or just political game-playing?

By setting a provisional target for U.S. reductions in greenhouse gas emissions in advance of the Copenhagen climate-change summit, President Barack Obama may have quieted those who had deplored his silence until now on one of the signature promises of his campaign.

But by issuing a veiled directive to Congress, he risks inflaming his already antagonistic relationship with senators – Democrats and Republicans alike – who like to remind the President that U.S. adherence to any climate-change treaty requires their consent first.

And so far, Mr. Obama doesn't have anywhere near the Senate votes he needs to implement any agreement that may evolve – sooner or later – from the United Nations gathering in Denmark next month, where he will make a cameo before heading to Oslo to pick up his Nobel Peace Prize.

Bill Clinton found himself in the same situation (minus the Nobel) when he boldly signed the Kyoto Protocol more than a decade ago. That treaty was never ratified by the Senate before George W. Bush renounced the deal to reduce U.S. greenhouse gases to 7 per cent below 1990 levels by 2012. And Mr. Obama clearly knows his history.

“The Kyoto lesson is pretty clear, but it's also a lesson this White House has learned,” Roger Ballentine, who headed Mr. Clinton's Climate Change Task Force, said in an interview. “What you'll see is the President expressing a strong personal commitment ... but at the same time he's going to be deferential to Congress.”

Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, one of the rare climate-change torchbearers in the Senate, may have declared it a “game-changer” that the U.S. delegation will arrive in Copenhagen pledging GHG reductions “in the range” of 17 per cent below 2005 levels by 2020. But only the crowd of urban progressives who swarmed to the polls for Mr. Obama a year ago, but who had grown weary of his tortoise-like pace on this and other issues, may see it that way.

“The subset of Americans that cares about this issue has been watching the President and hoping he would make an appearance at Copenhagen,” noted Sharon Dunwoody, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who specializes in environmental communication. “What I've been hearing is: ‘We're the odd country out. Everybody's doing something, while here in the U.S. we're doing nothing.'”

Still, the “subset” of Americans looking to Mr. Obama for tough action is shrinking, not growing, as ordinary folks focus on pulling themselves out of the worst economic downturn in at least a generation. Two years ago, fully 77 per cent of Americans believed there was “solid evidence” of global warming. Today, the proportion has fallen to 57 per cent, according to an October poll by the Pew Research Center.

Only 35 per cent of Americans now think climate change is a “serious problem” and of those who have heard “a lot” about the cap-and-trade legislation passed in June by the House of Representatives (which sets the same 17 per cent target the administration proposed), almost two-thirds oppose it.

Mr. Obama has to “wrestle with this incredibly complex domestic environment where other issues have taken centre-stage ... and public support for big changes is decreasing,” Prof. Dunwoody conceded.

It may be overly myopic to judge his move uniquely through the lens of near-term domestic politics. Of all the climate-change holdouts, only a first move by the United States can inject momentum into the Copenhagen talks. Mr. Obama has set a benchmark that makes it easier for China and India to come forward with undertakings of their own.

“The more credible the U.S. is, the more we're able to get other countries to take action,” opined Jake Schmidt, the international climate policy director at the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington.

If that's true, Mr. Obama may just have changed the game, after all.

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