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Copenhagen conference: The view from America


Barack Obama may be judged harshly by history if the US does not show its hand at the talks

This month, South Korea pledged to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 30% below "business as usual" levels by 2020. Russia, too, announced a new target: 20% below 1990 levels. The European Union, of course, has already committed to cutting emissions 20% by 2020 — 30% if the rest of the developed world joins in.

"We now have offers of targets from all industrialised countries except the United States," Yvo de Boer, the UN's chief climate negotiator, recently told The New York Times. Clearly, he was trying to embarrass the US ahead of the upcoming negotiations in Copenhagen. But the US, as de Boer must surely know by now, doesn't embarrass easily.

A year after Barack Obama's victory, the US is, if not exactly where it was before, then not too far along, either. True, the new administration no longer denies that global warming is a problem. It doesn't edit reports on climate science to make them sound less dire, or take down data from government websites. But these are negative achievements. In terms of positive actions, the administration doesn't have much to show.

Last Wednesday, the president, apparently not wanting to scuttle the climate talks singlehandedly, said that US negotiators would offer a "provisional target" of reducing the nation's emissions by 17% by 2020.

But the US is using a baseline year of 2005, meaning that the target is even more modest than it sounds. Meanwhile, it's unclear whether the president can deliver on it, which is why it took him so long to offer it in the first place. Whether Obama's latest announcement will change the dynamics of the talks remains to be seen. The last word out of the president, and other world leaders who gathered in Singapore earlier this month, was that there would be no legally binding treaty coming out of Copenhagen. That announcement seemed to suck the air out of the climate summit before it had even started.

Der Spiegel called the situation a result of Obama's "own negligence," and this assessment, while harsh, is basically accurate. On the night of his victory, Obama spoke of a "planet in peril". But talk, as Americans like to say, is cheap. The president chose to make healthcare his top legislative priority. In doing so, he knew – or at least should have known – that he was guaranteeing inaction on climate change in Washington for at least another year.

"One could perhaps argue that this could have been a much higher priority and this should perhaps have been pushed before any of the other initiatives the administration has taken, particularly given the fact that there was a deadline of December for getting an agreement," is how Rajendra Pachauri, the chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, delicately put it last week. Meanwhile, public opinion in the US has been tracking in precisely the wrong direction. According to a recent poll, just 36% of Americans believe that there is "solid evidence that the earth is warming" due to "human activity." This is down 11% from the spring of 2008. If President Obama thinks that he has been communicating the urgency of the problem, he needs to think again.

Obama has said that "our generation's response to this challenge will be judged by history." He is surely right about this. The judgment is not likely to be kind.

Elizabeth Kolbert is a staff writer for The New Yorker and author of Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change

This piece originally appeared in The Guardian

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This is a harsh and politically tone-deaf assessment, and it is hard to believe it was written by someone as astute as Elizabeth Kolbert.

If you assume Obama was completely free to act without consideration of his political opponents (including some in his own party), the mood of US citizens, his attempts to wade through the wreckage of two failed wars, an essentially jobless economic "recovery," etc., then it would be fair to blame him for the "negligence" that European (and many American) detractors are quick to see. Was health care really his "top" legislative priority, pursued at the expense of decisive action on energy and climate? Maybe . . . or maybe he saw the need to see one contentious issue for which victory guided by his party was at least plausible, all the way through to completion (adoption by both houses of Congress and signed by the President). He saw this might create a new sense of political possibility in which other, even more contentious issues, would prove tractable.

No, if we "fail," the failure is not Obama's, and it is far too early to count him out on this or any issue. The failure rests at the feet of a broken political system and a heedless populace that watched for a generation while the demise of once-admirable and effective institutions was fed to us on television like 21st century bread and circuses.

Posted by: Ted Wolf on 30 Nov 09

For an interesting balance, here is the view on COP15 from China. Was prepared by Edelman Shanghai


Posted by: Greener China on 1 Dec 09

It is time to step up Obama. You need to focus on the "universal health" of the globe. Do your part, now!

"I am here to serve."

The Window Man

Posted by: The Window Man on 1 Dec 09

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