Opinion: US climate policy under the Obama presidency

6 November 2008

The Climate Group's US Policy Director Michael Allegretti and Evan Juska give their thoughts on Obama's election victory and what it means for climate change

The election of Barack Obama was truly an historic moment for the United States. It represented a marked shift in direction for US policy, as Obama won the election on a message of "change," with a defiantly progressive slogan of "yes we can." But as Obama acknowledged during his victory speech on Tuesday night, now is when the real work begins. Citing a "planet in peril," Obama reminded Americans that one of the most pressing challenges facing the country is how to address the threat of climate change.

"A new start for the US addressing climate change and reengaging with the international community"Obama will bring a fundamental shift in the way the US approaches this issue, both at home and abroad. In Foreign Affairs he wrote, "As president, I intend to enact a cap-and-trade system that will dramatically reduce our carbon emissions. Getting our own house in order is only a first step.We need a global response to climate change that includes binding and enforceable commitments to reducing emissions, especially for those that emit the most: the United States, China, India, the European Union, and Russia." Obama has also emphasized the importance of "rebuilding partnerships" and "renewing America's leadership in the world." His convincing victory has given him a mandate to follow through on these promises.

Thus, we can expect the Obama Administration to bring a more positive and constructive approach to the international climate negotiations at Poznan next month, and at Copenhagen in 2009. But we should not expect the kind of immediate turnaround witnessed when Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced that his country would ratify the Kyoto protocol shortly after his election.

The reason is simple: Barack Obama cannot act alone.

In addition, the debate in Congress is lagging behind the debate in the international community, both in terms of the level of US commitment and the timing of that commitment. Most US proposals are relatively consistent with international expectations regarding long-term targets of 80 percent by 2050, although the baselines vary. But there is still divergence regarding interim targets. US proposals range from 6 to 20 percent by 2020, while international expectations are closer to 25 to 40 percent by 2020, from a lower baseline.

"Whether or not [US commitment] will happen in time for Copenhagen is unclear"In addition, last June's Senate debate of the Lieberman-Warner cap-and-trade proposal did not help to resolve many of these outstanding issues. New cap-and-trade proposals will likely be introduced early-on in the next US Congress, but much of 2009 will be spent working through these proposals in relevant Congressional committees. Thus, Congressional discourse on legislation is likely, but passage of legislation remains uncertain. As this process unfolds, we will get a clearer understanding about what the US is willing to commit to internationally, but whether or not this will happen in time for Copenhagen is unclear.

"Until Congress has reached agreement on these issues, Obama will not be in a position to commit to specific international targets." He needs real support from the US Congress, which is the only branch of government with the power to pass domestic climate legislation and ratify an international climate treaty. Congress remains deeply divided along political and regional-economic lines, and although the increased Democratic majorities won in both the Senate and the House will help to weaken these divisions, they have by no means removed them. Congress has not yet reached agreement on fundamental issues, such as the level of US emission reductions and what should be expected from developing countries. Until Congress has reached agreement on these issues, Obama will not be in a position to commit to specific international targets.

Obama's election nevertheless represents a new start for the US in addressing climate change and reengaging with the international community. There is good reason to hope for progress and leadership from the US in the coming years, but it will not happen overnight. As Obama said in his victory speech, "The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep."

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