By Gregor Peter Schmitz
During her speech Tuesday to a joint session of the United States Congress, Chancellor Angela Merkel found herself right in the middle of American domestic politics.
At first glance, everything in the scene resembled a normal state visit. Angela Merkel, dressed in a simple black outfit, stood at the rostrum. Behind her sat Vice-President Joe Biden and the speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi. Merkel had just spoken of the "partnership in leadership" between America and Germany and her appreciation for the American people. A delegation of around 30 Congress members had earlier escorted her into the House chamber. A master of ceremonies had announced her entry, which was accompanied by loud applause and even shouts of approval from some members.
But then her attention turned to climate change. "We need the readiness of all nations to assume internationally binding obligations," Merkel said in a serious tone. "We cannot afford failure with regard to achieving the climate protection objectives scientists tell us are crucial." She went on: "That would not only be irresponsible from an ecological point of view, but would also be technologically short-sighted, for the development of new technologies in the energy sector offers major opportunities for growth and jobs in the future."
As Merkel spoke these words, the Democratic Senator Chris Dodd nudged his colleague Barbara Boxer, a known supporter of action on climate change from California, as if signaling her to pay attention. But she was already applauding enthusiastically. Then she got to her feet and pointed with her arm to the seats to the right of Dodd, where his Republican colleagues were sitting. Listen closely, she seemed to be saying.
A draft, tougher climate change bill is currently bogged down in Congress. The House of Representatives has passed it, but the Senate is blocking it -- because the Republicans are putting up resistance, as are some Democrats from states which are home to heavily polluting industries. Under these circumstances, the chances of progress being made at the UN climate change summit in Copenhagen in December appear to be virtually zero.
Merkel's visit was intended to send a signal. President Barack Obama also made that clear earlier on Tuesday during their meeting in the Oval Office, when he called Merkel "an extraordinary leader on the issue of climate change."
After Merkel made her climate change comments during her speech to Congress, more and more Democrats got to their feet and applauded. It went on so long that even Obama's National Security Adviser James Jones got up from his chair right at the front and clapped.
It was a domestic political message backed up by foreign support. Just how urgent it is was shown by the reaction of the Republicans, when Merkel in the following sentence expressed her optimism that even China and India will be prepared to make concessions on climate change. An audible growl of incredulity arose from the deputies around John Boehner, the Republican minority leader in the House of Representatives, as the chancellor spoke.
That moment made clear just which issues will be important to the -- at times rather vague -- "trans-Atlantic partnership" in the future.
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