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Climate Protection as a Job Engine: Obama Calls for Green Battle against Economic Crisis

By in Washington

US President Barack Obama has said this week he wants to fight climate change, making the kind of statements the rest of the world has been waiting to hear for a long time. He's dressing his proposals up as an economic stimulus package, but can he drum up enough US support for a deal in Copenhagen later this year?

When the new United States president walked into the East Room of the White House on Monday, he was supposed to focus on climate change. But Barack Obama first wanted to say a few words about the bleak economic climate, an area where he has some immediate decisions to make.

Frightening new figures have been jolting the US economy in recent days. The list of companies making large cuts in employees is long: construction-machine builder Caterpillar is cutting 20,000 jobs, mobile phone giant Sprint is shedding 8,000, home improvement chain Home Depot will eliminate 7,000 workers. And the list doesn't end there -- it is getting longer and longer, and includes blue chip companies like Microsoft, Intel and United Airlines.

Obama during a visit to a bio diesel plant in August: Will he adopt climate protection as an engine for job growth?
REUTERS

Obama during a visit to a bio diesel plant in August: Will he adopt climate protection as an engine for job growth?

"These are not just numbers on a page," Obama says. "As with the millions of jobs lost in 2008, these are working men and women whose families have been disrupted and whose dreams have been put on hold. We owe it to each of them and to every single American to act with a sense of urgency and common purpose."

Then Obama elegantly intertwines the economic crisis with the battle to save the environment. His advisers have already alluded to this in the title to the address: "Jobs, Energy Independence, Climate Change." The signal is clear: Obama plans to launch a new approach to climate protection.

According to Obama's plan, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will once again review whether the state of California is permitted to introduce stricter emission controls, which call for a 30 percent reduction in vehicle pollution emissions by 2016 and which 18 states had intended to follow. The plan goes far beyond that envisioned by a federal law passed in 2007. But, under the presidency of George W. Bush, the EPA blocked the more stringent standards, reasoning that it would be better to wage the battle against CO2 emissions at the national, rather than the state, level.

"The federal government must work with, not against, states to reduce greenhouse gas emissions," Obama says now, in a clear jab at the Bush administration. "My administration will not deny facts; we will be guided by them." Accordingly, he has also ordered the Department of Transportation to submit new plans by March for lowering fuel consumption beginning in 2011. If Obama has his way, the proposed economic package will double the capacity to generate alternative energy within three years.

Climate Protection as Engine for Job Growth

These are the kind of statements that climate-protection advocates in America and the rest of the world have been waiting to hear for a long time.

But, during his brief address, Obama already had his sights on another audience: those politicians and citizens who prefer to view climate-protection measures as harmful during the economic crisis. To these people, Obama wants to present his measures as a premium to be paid in order to usher in economic recovery.

Obama is promoting his program by saying it will lead to a reduction in oil consumption and reduce dependence on foreign dictators and terorrists. It will also mean more money for renewable energy and more jobs. Obama envisions the creation of up to 460,000 new jobs through the program. And people believe the president when he says that even the ailing American auto industry might profit over the long term from stricter new emissions specifications. "Our goal is not to further burden an already struggling industry," Obama says. "It is to help America's automakers prepare for the future."

These words make environmental advocates optimistic. "After eight Bush years, where the White House had rather blocked than encouraged climate initiatives, Obama shows his commitment to a fresh start," Peter Goldmark, a climate expert with the Environmental Defense Fund, told SPIEGEL ONLINE.

Action Must Follow Promises

Obama used these initial announcements to honor his campaign pledges, but they were the easiest steps -- and there is still a long way to go before comprehensive national regulations on pollution limits and an emissions trading system can be put in place.

The European Union already has the latter. According to its system, companies must purchase the rights from an exchange to pollute the air. But these emissions certificates were priced so low when they were brought to the market, many experts argue, that they actually ended up benefitting energy companies. In the United States, the Obama team is instead making plans to auction emissions certificates. This idea has been criticized as being a type of tax on CO2 emissions -- an idea that isn't terribly popular given the current economic crisis.

Republican Senator James Inhofe has already warned that any kind of mandatory emissions limits would represent a "death blow" for already battered US industries. Even within Obama's party, a powerful group called the "Dirty Democrats," is made up of politicians from states with powerful coal and steel industries, meaning that almost one out of four Democratic senators is skeptical about pursuing ambitious climate protection targets.

The US automobile industry is also testing new arguments. Industry lobbyists, for example, will readily admit off the record that car companies are obviously responsible for a large part of the emission of pollution. But, they ask, is it fair to burden them now more than other industry sectors? Especially now, at a time when manufacturers in the industry are grappling with plummeting sales figures and staggering losses totaling in the billions?

Still, climate experts are cautiously optimistic. Arne Jungjohann, a program director at the North American office of Germany's Heinrich Böll Foundation in Washington, which is affilliated with the Green Party, told SPIEGEL ONLINE: "In the US House of Representatives, avowed climate-protection advocates now chair the decisive committees. Perhaps there will already be a framework for US legislation in place in the spring before the next global climate summit in December in Copenhagen." On Wednesday, climate champion Al Gore will promote Obama's proposed new measures in the US Senate. And when it comes to global cooperation, the Obama administration's new "climate envoy" should be able to help out as well. Those shoes are to be filled by Todd Stern, who was already active as the US chief negotiator for the Kyoto talks held during Bill Clinton's presidency.

The only question is whether this team will be able to secure US support for a global climate agreement by December. "I've made it clear that we will act," Obama says, "but so too must the world." A few words later, Obama makes it clear that this "world" includes China and India as well. The Bush administration had always declined to introduce stricter US standards unless these major polluters were also parties to the negotiations. "It's exactly right to address this," says Goldmark. "China and India have been hiding behind George W. Bush's back for too long."

The White House's new resolve is clearly also a call on the Europeans not to start backpedalling now. Germany's Angela Merkel, who has enjoyed her moniker as the "climate chancellor," is openly pushing primarily for EU legislation that grants exemptions to the country's automobile industry. "Chancellor Merkel was putting on a 'mini Bush' performance aimed at short-term electoral gain," Goldmark says. You can already feel the results in Washington, where climate protection advocates had been vocal about their disapproval of Europe's wavering environmental resolve.

Europe will soon have a chance to clear up these misunderstandings. On Wednesday, the European Commission will present its draft for the Copenhagen negotiations. "That could once again give new impetus to the US debate," Jungjohann says.

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