Obama’s Climate Confusion

February 25, 2009

Although Barack Obama’s address to Congress has been very well received (not least by a fawning BBC correspondent), on the issue of climate change, the chosen one is failing to measure up to the hype.

During his election campaign, Obama had promised prompt action on greenhouse gas emissions, by the end of 2009 at least. Now, however, as the Guardian reports, “Officials conceded that Congress is unlikely to pass such legislation by the end of 2009, a delay that could hurt efforts to reach a global treaty at the climate change conference in Copenhagen this December.”

Too right. The Copenhagen negotiations would be immeasurably enhanced by a president arriving with a mandate from Congress to force an effective global agreement.

Instead of actually doing something to cut carbon emissions, the administration has a much better option. As Nancy Sutley, an administration underling on the White House Council on Environmental Quality puts it, “What is necessary is for us to demonstrate some leadership” – as if all the world is waiting for is for America to give its permission to cut carbon emissions.

Yet other nations are actually leading, rather than posturing. Britain’s government has been prodded into passing a Climate Act that seeks 80 percent emissions reductions by 2050, as a result of popular pressure and lobbying. Even China, often seen as a major obstacle to emissions reduction “has launched the largest effort in history to make their economy energy efficient.”

Those aren’t the words of a jaded Maoist or a wide eyed environmentalist, by the way. Obama deployed them during his speech yesterday to press his case for moves to enhance American energy independence. So peoples and nations around the world are doing more than Americans and their government to combat climate change, far more.

The issue isn’t about “leadership” so much as credibility. There isn’t much doubt that Obama will try to “lead” any negotiations that he attends, just as Bush did. In the latter’s case, he led them into a black hole of denialism and division, while torpedoing the Kyoto Protocol. The result of his tenure is that other governments mistrust America and demand assurances that their commitments will be coupled with action in Washington.

They also remember the problems that Bill Clinton and Al Gore ran into when piloting Kyoto back in the late 1990s. Then, a recalcitrant Congress prevented ratification of the deal. The fact that Obama is not faced with a Republican Congress and yet still is making noises about delaying legislation, will still further alarm outsiders.

Yet these reports are not absolute. There remains some doubt about the priorities of the administration, even though it has despatched spokespeople to lower public expectations of action on climate change. (Along with Sutley, the White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs had told the media that action would be forthcoming, “whether that’s this year or next year.”)

Obama’s speech last night reiterated his commitment to passing a “cap and trade” bill to reduce emissions. But these reports are muddying the waters, giving him strategic room to delay and dilute any legislation. Some might suggest that this reflects the President’s contradictory business constituency – “wind power and solar power; advanced biofuels, clean coal, and more fuel-efficient cars and trucks built right here in America” as he put it.

Perhaps he and his advisers know that massive backing for clean coal and biofuels is hardly consonant with reducing carbon emissions. In both cases, any improvements are decades away, yet Obama has made commitments to back them. With that in mind, it is hard to see him pressing firmly for big emissions reductions, particularly if he is intending to make the promotion of coal and biofuels a central part of his “stimulus” which the signs from last night suggest he is.


2 Responses to “Obama’s Climate Confusion”

  1. Watson Says:

    You have to wonder how much power the President really wields. I am not convinced that having a Democrat dominated Congress is relevant to his ability to implement policy. There are biofuel states and coal states whose representatives will fight like dogs to prop up their industries. As in the UK, the government likes to sprinkle some green fairy dust every now and then to keep the chattering classes quiet, but they are aware that, in general, people will vote on their own short term financial prospects. I don’t think that will change until the power is cut and the floodwaters are at the door.

    • szamko Says:

      Well, it’s not a big problem for the House of Representatives to pass a deal. The Senate is the problem, with 15 Democrats blabbering about delaying any climate change legislation.

      And, of course, those politicians are up to their elbows in oil and coal money (they’re being led by Jay Rockefeller!). But they aren’t resisting because of popular pressure, or votes. Unless you count the business vote.

      Obama can outflank them by appealing to the people of those states to lobby “their” Senators and demand a change of stance. I doubt he will, but not for electoral reasons or because he lacks power. It’s courage that he lacks, and a little commitment. The economy is much more important for him as a media issue. If he decides to go for a climate bill then he leaves himself open to media accusations of risking the economy etc. etc…

      Of course, he could rebut them simply enough. But he probably won’t.

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