Opinion Obama Has Failed the World on Climate Change

US President Barack Obama came to office promising hope and change. But on climate change, he has followed in the footsteps of his predecessor, George W. Bush. Now, should the climate summit in Copenhagen fail, the blame will lie squarely with Obama.

By Christian Schwägerl

Greenpeace activists in Hong Kong urge Obama to take a stand on climate change.

Greenpeace activists in Hong Kong urge Obama to take a stand on climate change.

The folder labeled "climate change" that George W. Bush left behind for his successor on the desk of the Oval Office in January likely wasn't a thick one. Although Bush once said that America is overly dependent on oil, he never got beyond that insight. He was too busy waging war on Iraq and searching for a legal basis for extraordinary renditions to pay much attention to the real threat facing humanity. "Forget the climate" seems to have been Bush's unofficial motto.

But few people expected that Barack Obama, of all people, would continue his predecessor's climate change plan. When he took office at the beginning of 2009, it was clear that the success of the UN Climate Change Summit in Copenhagen in December depended almost entirely on the US -- that America needed to take a clear leadership role on a problem that could shake civilization to its very core.

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Only if the US manages to reduce its excessive energy consumption, commit itself to mandatory CO2 emission reduction targets and help finance poorer countries' move away from oil is there still a chance that countries like China and India will do the same and that a dangerous warming of the Earth can be stopped. On the weekend, Obama announced that there would be no agreement on binding rules in Copenhagen. It was the admission of a massive failing -- and the prelude to a truly dramatic phase of international climate policy.

Obama Lied to the Europeans

Barack Obama cast himself as a "citizen of the world" when he delivered his well-received campaign speech in Berlin in the summer of 2008. But the US president has now betrayed this claim. In his Berlin speech, he was dishonest with Europe. Since then, Obama has neglected the single most important issue for an American president who likes to imagine himself as a world citizen, namely, his country's addiction to fossil fuels and the risks of unchecked climate change. Health-care reform and other domestic issues were more important to him than global environmental threats. He was either unwilling or unable to convince skeptics in his own ranks and potential defectors from the ranks of the Republicans to support him, for example, by promising alternative investments as a compensation for states with large coal reserves.

Obama's announcement at the APEC summit that it was no longer possible to secure a binding treaty in Copenhagen is the result of his own negligence. China, India and other emerging economies have always spoken openly about the fact that the US, as the world's largest emitter of CO2, has to be proactive in commiting itself to targets agreed on by way of international negotiation. But that is not America's style. The US is quite happy to see itself as the leader of the Western world. But when it comes to climate change, America has once again failed miserably -- for the umpteenth time.

If the rest of the world were to follow the US example in their approach to fossil fuels, the oceans would not only heat up, but would probably soon begin to boil. American per capita CO2 emissions are about twice as high as those in comparable industrialized nations and many times greater than those of the developing world. The climate change bill that is currently making its way through Congress does not go nearly far enough -- and that is Obama's fault. The bill proposed reducing CO2 emissions by a ridiculous 4 percent relative to 1990 levels, by 2020. Climate researchers believe that reductions of 40 percent or more are required.

The bill has since been watered-down even more -- by exactly the kind of lobbying interests that the new US president had promised to overcome. Obama has neglected to communicate the importance of climate change to his fellow citizens by speaking about it in a major speech or in his much-loved "town hall" meetings. And he has left it to the Europeans to take the lead.


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