Global environmental challenges
Day Three: And what of Obama?
President Barack Obama’s decision to attend the climate talks in Copenhagen next week, at the end of the process rather than at the beginning, is said to show the White House is serious about pursuing a deal to curb global warming.
On the first day of talks in Copenhagen this week, the Environmental Protection Agency cleared the way for regulation of greenhouse gases without new laws passed by Congress, a move said to enforce Obama’s commitment to act.
And on Tuesday, the top Chinese climate envoy told Reuters the U.S. needs to increase its commitment to emission cuts.
With Obama set to accept his Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo on Thursday, we thought it was a good time to turn the discussion toward what exactly we’re expecting from him at climate talks in Copenhagen.
Today’s question: What should President Barack Obama promise to do to fight climate change when he comes to Copenhagen?
Dr. David Suzuki, geneticist and journalist:
The U.S. is, like Canada, one of the countries that is most responsible for global warming, with a long history of polluting the atmosphere and still high per capita pollution levels.
Like Canada, it also has a lot of wealth, which it has gained partly by being able to use the atmosphere as a free dumping ground. So like other polluting countries, the U.S. must step up and take responsibility for past and present pollution and the impacts it has.
What does that mean? It means that President Obama needs to make up for the fact that it did not ratify the Kyoto Protocol by agreeing in Copenhagen to actions and commitments that are comparable to other countries that followed through on their Kyoto commitments.
So the U.S. must agree to deep emission reductions for 2020 that are legally-binding. President Obama can agree to delivering his country’s fair share of the required support for poor, developing countries so they can adapt to climate change and curb their own emissions.
And finally, the president can use his very capable political skills—he did after all win the Nobel Peace Prize for diplomacy—to break through deadlocks and produce a fair, ambitious and binding agreement in Copenhagen.
Dr. Gidon Eshel, physics professor at Bard College:
Tax carbon at a flat rate of x dollar per ton of emitted CO2 or its equivalents, no ifs, ands or buts, no allowances and no exceptions.
The timid, ill-defined cap-and-trade mechanism apparently favored by the Obama negotiation team is an unhelpful ruse.
A cap and trade mechanism may work, or may be the environmental equivalent of the invasion of Iraq. The difference between one that works (i.e., one that lowers atmospheric level of greenhouse gases) and one that only has the appearance of working (e.g., one in which NOT clear-cutting a patch of Amazon rainforest constitutes a rewardable good deed for which utilities get a license to emit more) is all in the details.
Because the American political system is so notoriously corrupt and prone to untowardly and unfair influence peddling by various lobbies, there is every reason to believe the details of any realizable cap-and-trade system will be so deleteriously affected by those “tweaks” as to render the entire enterprise a waste of everybody’s time.
The president also should acknowledge the obvious fact that while the U.S. is now only the second worst emitter, after China, basic fairness dictates recognizing the fact, and the associated culpability, that the U.S. and western Europe are responsible for the lion’s share of the rise from the 280 ppmv of pre-industrial atmospheric CO2 concentrations to the current 390.
Finally, the president should also reject the false notion that China’s commitment to reducing carbon intensity is enough. It is not, because China’s carbon intensity is very low, so a small increase aversion will not cut it. The atmosphere only cares about absolute levels of GHGs, and those have to decline. Not any ambiguous derivative thereof.
Knut Alfsen, Head Research Director, Center for International Climate and Environmental Research, Oslo (CICERO):
President Obama is severely hampered by the Senate when it comes to the promise of quantitative reductions in emissions in the United States.
It is probably not wise for Obama to promise deeper cuts than can be confirmed by U.S. law, to be decided by the Congress. So what can Obama bring to Copenhagen?
One short answer is “money”.
The U.S. can provide initiative on how, by whom, and how much money should be offered to the developing countries to mitigate and adapt to climate change.
More substantial and important is, however, in my view, the possibility of the U.S. taking the lead in technology development.
The climate challenge requires no less than a new industrial revolution. We have to learn how to carry our our businesses essentially without greenhouse gas emissions.
That includes everything from producing cement and steel, transporting ourselves and our goods to and from desired destinations, heating and/or cooling our houses, to more mundane tasks such as baking bread and brewing beer.
This requires massive investments in the development of new technologies of many kinds. Cap and trade systems are good at implementing available climate friendly technologies, but to secure development of these technologies, public money is required.
Thus my wish and dream is that Obama in Copenhagen announces a new initiatiave in technology development as a cooperative action between industrialized and developing countries.
Here, rich countries will have to pay for research and development of climate-friendly technologies in the developing world supplemented with competencies and know-how. The poorer countries will have to provide land and facilities, manpower and also, and most importantly, huge markets where new technologies can be tried out and experinces gained.
It is my belief that a stronger focus on cooperative efforts in technology development can bring the negotiating process out of it’s current confrontational stance.
Kim Carstensen, leader of the World Wildlife Fund Global Climate Initiative:
Later today, the delegates assembled in the Copenhagen Bella Center will cast their attention towards Oslo, where President Obama will be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
The awarding of this prestigious prize to the American President is a reflection of the hope around the world that he will lead not only the U.S. but the world toward greater peace and security. And there is no greater threat to geo-political stability than unmitigated climate change.
A fair, ambitious and binding global climate deal is within reach. But we need the political will to make it happen.
For that, the delegates here are looking to President Obama to bring along his own country to seal a climate deal.
One major key to success in Copenhagen lies in the U.S. Senate, which is currently debating a climate change bill. It is critical that the U.S. legislation passes in early 2010.
So tonight and next week when President Obama returns here to Scandinavia, we will be listening for assurance that he will make passage of the climate bill his next top priority.
What do you think? If you had the chance to tell Obama what he needs to do, what would it be?