It was a telling moment. Normally these days, when President-elect Barack Obama appears before the press, even his designated cabinet secretaries arrange themselves dutifully in a row behind him. But when Obama met with Al Gore in Chicago on Tuesday afternoon, the former vice president politely offered Obama a seat at a table. Gore is, after all, a Nobel Peace Prize winner. Many see him as a saviour of the global climate.
The Tuesday meeting, together with Vice President-elect Joe Biden at their side, was called to address the big issues: global warming and the future of the planet. We are "in agreement that the time for delay is over, the time for denial is over" Obama said.
The president-elect has promised to work together on climate change with Democrats and Republicans, with citizens and industry. "This is a matter of urgency and national security." Obama plans to radically reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the US -- by 80 percent by 2050 relative to 1990 levels. By 2020, he wants to bring emissions down to where they were in 1990 (last year they were 17 percent higher). The 2020 target is far behind the European Union target -- a 20 percent reduction by 2020 relative to 1990 -- but in the US, it is nothing short of a revolution.
Gore looked determined on Tuesday. Three American flags stand behind the three men -- the image is that of a new beginning after eight years of Bush administration obstruction. Many see the joint appearance as a signal that Gore could join Obama's team as a climate change ambassador.
Are the Europeans Getting Cold Feet?
Such symbolic images are familiar in Germany. Chancellor Angela Merkel has also gone out of her way to show herself as a climate saviour. In August 2007, she had herself photographed on a block of ice in Greenland in order to draw attention to the consequences of climate change. Just a short time before she helped to negotiate a global climate "roadmap" at the G-8 summit in Germany.
But those times are over. Now, with heads of state and government from the European Union gathering in Brussels at the end of the week to approve the bloc's climate goals, Merkel has begun singing a different tune. In Monday's issue of the tabloid Bild, she said that she would not approve any EU climate rules "that endanger jobs or investments in Germany."
The world was listening. Indeed, given the changing message, it's no wonder that the negotiations in Poznan, Poland -- aimed at hammering out a successor treaty to the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2013 -- already appear to be deadlocked after just one week. Merkel's climate advisor Hans Joachim Schellnhuber told the Financial Times Deutschland on Tuesday: "Germany campaigned massively last year for climate protection; now we're claiming more opt outs than other countries. That tarnishes our credibility."
Many American environmentalists are also rubbing their eyes in amazement. Just as a new US administration looks ready after eight years of Bush stagnation to make real efforts on climate change, the Europeans seem to be getting cold feet.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, current holder of the European Union's rotating presidency, is trying to push through an agreement in Poznan. Indeed, only Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is arguing strongly against climate protection measures. But the European optimism felt in 2007 has disappeared.
It could have been a dream wedding, Peter Goldmark, a climate expert with the New York-based Environmental Defense Fund, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "But now it isn't clear anymore, whether Merkel is still waiting at the altar."
Goldmark finds Merkel's waffling especially devastating because Obama will need a large amount of support in his first year in office. "No one in Poznan is expecting a new agreement anymore," says Goldmark. "But whether we'll get one by the end of 2009 depends above all on the Europeans."
New Ammunition for Climate Hawks
Goldmark points out that it isn't at all clear what America's future role will be when it comes to climate change. The newly elected Congress, he says, is unpredictable, even if there is now a clear Democratic majority. "The country is currently fixated on the economic crisis. One thing we know for sure: if Europe hesitates, any progress in Washington will become that much more difficult," Goldmark says. Opponents can simply point to the indecisiveness of the Europeans.
The wretched economic situation also gives more ammunition to climate hawks. Republican Senator James Inhofe warns that any kind of limit on pollutants would be a deathblow for the crippled US industries. Democrat John Dingell in the House of Representatives thunders: "In times of economic downturns, members (of Congress) are extremely reluctant to add burdens to the economy."
The tone is worrying. Democrats have traditionally been more open to environmental protection laws -- and a self-proclaimed environmentalist, Democrat Henry Waxman of California, was recently chosen to replace Dingell as chair of the House's important energy and commerce committee. But there is still a group of "Dirty Democrats": representatives from states with important coal or steel interests. They look at ambitious climate measures with skepticism, and they occupy almost a fourth of all Senate seats in the Democratic caucus.
One thing especially in the crossfire is the emissions trading system that Obama wants to set up as soon as possible. After the lessons from Europe, where, in the opinion of many experts, freely giving out emissions credits has tended to benefit energy companies, the Obama team now plans to auction them. In this way, they function as a kind of tax on CO2 emissions -- an unpopular concept in the US.
Obama is aware of how controversial his plan is, and he hardly mentioned it during the campaign. Instead, he preferred to emphasize his proposal to invest $15 billion in research into alternative energies.
Still, Obama reinforced his determination shortly after the election in a video message to US governors: "Once I take office you can be sure that the United States will help lead the world toward a new era of global cooperation on climate change." When the chief of Obama's transition team, John Podesta, recently appeared before the Heinrich Böll Foundation, a German think tank aligned with the Green Party, in Washington, he concentrated his speech above all on new measures to protect the climate.
At least the new president can count on help from the states. Already during the Bush years, many states powered ahead with regional initiatives. In January, 10 states will even begin their own emissions trading system.
Obama, though, will need help -- particularly on the international stage. And particularly from the Europeans, if they return to the altar.