The United States defended its track record on fighting climate change as the Qatar climate change negotiations began last week. The US representative Jonathan Pershing claimed that the United Sates was making “enormous” efforts to slow global warming and help the poor nations most affected by it. (Associated Press, 2012) Other countries have accused the United States of consistently blocking progress in the search for a global solution to climate change particularly since the George W. Bush administration abandoned the Kyoto Protocol, the 1997 treaty limiting emissions of heat-trapping gases by industrialized countries. As negotiators met for a two-week session in oil and gas-rich Qatar, U.S. delegate Pershing suggested America deserves more credit and said: “Those who don’t follow what the U.S. is doing may not be informed of the scale and extent of the effort, but it’s enormous.” Pershing also noted that the Obama administration has taken a series of steps, including sharply increasing fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks, and made good on promises of climate financing for poor countries. (Associated Press, 2012). Thus far, the United States has not articulated any willingness to go beyond the voluntary emissions reductions commitment it made in Copenhagen three years ago.
The US apparent unwillingness to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions beyond what it is already on track to achieve is of considerable controversy in the Qatar negotiations this week because of the growing scientific concern about the potential inevitability of catastrophic warming caused by human activities. Probably at the top of the list in order of importance of all of the issues under negotiation in Qatar is the need to increase the ambitiousness of emissions reductions commitments by nations so that that future warming is limited to 2°C. Because nations have failed to make commitments to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions to levels that will limit future warming do 2°C, there is an increasing sense of urgency among climate scientists around the world on the need for all nations to significantly increase their greenhouse gas emissions reductions commitments to their fair share of safe global emissions. This will require most nations, but particularly high-emitting nations such as the United States, to greatly increase commitments beyond those that they had made in the Copenhagen Cop in 2009.
As we have written about extensively before on EthicandCliamte.org, the world has been waiting for over two decades for the United States to show leadership on climate change. See, f0r instance, The World Waits In Vain For US Ethical Climate Change Leadership As the World Warms. Although there are many countries other than the United States that have frequently failed to respond to what justice would require of them to reduce the threat of climate change, the United States, perhaps more than any other country, has gained a reputation in the international community for its consistent unwillingness to commit to serious greenhouse gas emissions reductions during the over two decades that world has been seeking a global agreement on how to respond to climate change. Because the United States is such a vital player in any global solution to climate change, the US lack of response to its obligations to reduce the global threat of climate change is widely seen as an immense impediment to an urgently needed global climate change solution. And so the world continues to wait for ethical leadership from the United States on climate change at a time when climate change damages are becoming more visible around the world.
The United States according to the World Resources Institute has recently made progress on its greenhouse gas emissions toward its voluntary target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 17% below 2005 emissions by 2020 to the extent that it may reduce its emissions by 9.5 % by 2020. (WRI, 2012) US ghg emissions reductions have been achieved in the United States due largely significant fuel switching in the electricity sector from coal to natural gas, an economic slowdown that began in 2008, and some federal and US state regulatory programs designed to reduce ghg emissions. Yet because the US projected reductions of 9.5% below 2005 in 2020 is equal to a 2% increase above 1990 levels in 2020 at a moment in history when many scientists believe that a reductions of 25 to 4o% below 1990 levels by 2020 are necessary to prevent dangerous climate change, the US projected reductions fall extraordinarily short of any reasonable US fair share of tolerable global emissions.
Because of these inadequate commitments from the United States, ECO, an NGO publication that reports on developments at UNFCCC negotiations, wrote the following letter to President Obama that we hereby reprint.
President Obama: We Hope for Change
In his victory speech after being re-elected to a second term, President Obama swelled the hopes once again of people around the world who care about climate change when he said, “We want our children to live in an America that is not burdened by debt, that is not weakened by inequality, that is not threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.” Those hopes continued to swell when in a press conference a few days later, he responded to a question from the media on climate by saying that he planned to start “a conversation across the country…” to see “how we can shape an agenda that garners bipartisan support and helps move this agenda forward…and…be an international leader” on climate change. President Obama appears to understand that climate change is a legacy issue that was not adequately addressed during his first term in office.
The question therefore has to be, what next? In his second term, will President Obama deliver the bold action needed to reduce the threat of climate change to the US and the world, by shifting the US economy towards a zero carbon future, and making the issue a centerpiece of US foreign policy? In the aftermath of superstorm Sandy, and the drought, wildfires and other extreme weather events that have afflicted the US over the last year, it is clearly time for President Obama to press the reset button on climate policy, both nationally and internationally.
First, the world needs to hear from the President and his negotiating team here in Doha that they remain fully committed to keeping the increase in global temperature far below 2 degrees, that it is not only still possible but essential to do so, and that the USA is going to provide leadership in this collective effort.
The administration should then make clear how it will meet its current 17 percent reduction target. While US emissions are decreasing slightly – both as a result of the administration’s policies on renewable energy and vehicle fuel economy standards and because of sharply lower natural gas prices that have reduced coal use for electricity generation – it is unlikely that without additional regulation or legislation that the US will meet its 2020 target. The delegation should also clarify what the Obama Administration will do to put the US on track to the near-elimination of emissions by mid-century called for by the scientific community.
Finally, delegations need to hear that the US remains committed to meeting its fair share of the Copenhagen pledge of mobilizing $100 billion in climate finance per year by 2020, as well as which innovative finance options the administration is prepared to support to get there.
These four steps would go a long way to reset US climate diplomacy. They would show that instead of dragging the world down to the level of what is (not) possible in the USA, President Obama and his team are going to pull the US up to what the science and the world demands to avoid catastrophic climate change.
One last point: every coach knows that when you find your team down by several goals at half-time, a change in your game plan may not be enough; it may also be time to make some substitutions to the players on the field.
Donald A. Brown
Scholar In Residence
Sustainability Ethics and Law
Widener University School of Law