“We want our children to live in an America that […] isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.” Many still remember this brief, yet hopeful and encouraging moment during Obama’s acceptance speech after his re-election in November. Observers hoped that Obama and his administration would bring much needed leadership from the top in addressing climate change issues during the UNFCCC COP18 Summit in Doha. Yet, the conference is now done and dusted, and the United States was again among the array of developed countries to block the progress with an unwillingness to commit to collective mitigation and adaptation goals. In fact, the second largest emitter has since scored not one, but four of the Fossil of the Day “Awards” civil society doles out after each day of the negotiations for its lack of cooperative will. The optimism has thus been shattered, and the world is left to re-examine the possibility of potential leadership from the Obama administration in climate change policy.
Why is leadership from Obama so important?
First, we need to recognise that we are in a critical time of transition. Under the UNFCCC convention, the current framework governing mitigation efforts, the only global legally-binding treaty is the Kyoto Protocol, will ends its first commitment period at the end of this year. Although the second commitment period will run from 2013 to 2020, it is now clear that this framework will only capture around 15 percent of the global emissions, and thus cannot adequately provide a solution to contain global temperature rise. On the adaptation side, the Long-term Corporative Action platform, which was established as part of the Bali Action Plan in 2007, will also conclude its work in 2012. A new convention which covers both mitigation and adaptation, called the Durban Platform, is set to be drafted and negotiated by 2015 to come into effect by 2020.
This means that the world only has three years to come up with a workable, equitable and readily implementable convention concerning all parties. The time is swiftly ticking out. To move forward, there needs to be much more faith, trust and ambition, and much less empty talk, finger-pointing and reluctance to move. Here, the leadership of the US is especially important, as it will not only sent out a positive signal to the world that a historically recalcitrant nation is now ready to take responsibility, but also exert enough pressure on other major emitters to follow suit. However, taking positive leadership on the negotiation table is not possible without a different mandate from the Obama administration, as the negotiators are after all mere diplomats, not decision-makers.
Why haven’t Obama and the US taken leadership in Doha?
The reason is actually quite simple: the position and priority of climate change on Obama’s agenda list is not high. Climate change was neither a banner issue during Obama’s first term, nor a prominent feature of his 2012 campaign until the very end. The tide-turning event, as we all know, was Hurricane Sandy in November. The devastating impact of the storm and its potential link to climate change enabled (and to some extent propelled) Obama to campaign for climate change to capture this newly sparked sentiment among voters.
But it has only been a few weeks since climate change made it on to Obama’s “bucket list.” So even if Obama wishes to go full throttle ahead with this issue, there is simply not enough time for the administration to formulate a concrete policy plan to back up any promises at the international level. Furthermore, the administration is still fretted by many more pressing issues: the fiscal cliff, Syrian unrest, and perhaps now gun-control discussions, just to name a few. So it was not completely unexpected that no new mandate was given to the envoys, and no new commitment was seen in Doha.
However, although the position of the US delegation remained the same in Doha, the world saw a glimpse of hope through the positive signals Todd Stern, the US’s lead negotiator, sent out during the conference. In his statement, he said that President Obama recognises that [the US] should do more, and [the US] intends to do more”. He also stressed that the US is willing to engage in discussions concerning equity and “Common But Differentiated Responsibility”, a principle the US has previously fought vehemently to reinterpret so as to include commitments for major developing countries like China and India. As an optimist, I would interpret this as a hint that the United States is intending to be more open-minded and flexible to demonstrate global leadership on climate change, and it is just a matter of time when the administration builds enough capacity to take concrete actions.
What should Obama do to move ahead as quickly as possible?
I consulted with Samantha Smith from WWF and David Waskow from Oxfam, on this issue while in I was in Doha. Here are a few suggestions they made:
- Bully Pulpit strategy: Aside from Sandy, other extreme weather patterns that have recently rampaged through the US and caused extensive physical and economic damages could all be used to Obama’s advantage in gaining support on the climate change issue both at the voter and congressional level.
- Power of the Secretary of States: The Secretary of State is a potentially powerful and influential position. During her term, Hillary Clinton was a strong proponent and advocate on many of her “banner issues” such as women rights. Thus, if Obama is able to pick a successor with strong voice for climate change (or instate this voice into him/her through leadership), there will be a stronger drive within the administration across multiple levels. It is now clear that US Senator John Kerry, a strong believer and proponent of climate issues, has been tapped to succeed Clinton. From here, the collaborative leadership effort between the Whitehouse and the State will play a vital role.
- Introduce “bite-sized” sectorial mitigation policies: Rather than trying to push through a comprehensive policy framework such as an Emissions Trading Scheme, the more sector-specific policy standards regulating, for example coal power plants and building efficiency, are likely to be more palatable and sellable in the Congress.
- Utilise external platforms: Many non-governmental platforms, organisations and entities are powerful and can mobilise resources and lobbying power very quickly. Just like working with stakeholder entities in the natural gas industries on fracking issues, the Obama administration can partner with relevant platforms in fields include but not limit to forestry and clean tech, to push for mitigation and adaptation policies.
All in all, I feel that if Obama’s commitment to combat climate change is genuine and sincere, his administration would be very capable of gathering the support and resources needed to drive this vision forward. There is thus still hope that the US will shift its position in the multilateral climate talks, before it is too late to lose the future of our planet to the “destructive power of a warming planet”.