Restoring America's Leadership in International Global Warming Negotiations

We now have a new leader in the US that understands global warming and recognizes that it requires leadership both at home and abroad.  Addressing this challenge (and opportunity) will be a key task of both President-elect Barack Obama (and his Administration) and Congress.  And, they'll have to get their act together fast as the world agreed in Bali to establish a post-2012 international global warming pact by the end of 2009 in Copenhagen, Denmark.

But before I go into some details, I want to remind you that as a non-partisan organization, NRDC does not endorse candidates.  But now that Barack Obama has been declared the winner, we can begin to look at the environmental implications of the voters' decisions.  So I want to highlight the repercussions for efforts to get an international post-2012 agreement to address global warming.

The task is tough...solving the greatest challenge of this century won't be easy.  It will require true leadership, active engagement (and advocacy) from the American public, and a strong push from the President and Members of Congress.  We will need to roll up our sleeves at home and restore America's leadership in international global warming negotiations.  And, that task begins from day one (in fact it begins now).

So let's get started...

While not technically a part of his time in office, there is an important "check-point" in the international global warming negotiations -- Poland in December 2008 -- where the President-elect can convey a new message that:  he will work to "restore America's leadership" on global warming.  Essentially saying, the US will no longer be laggards, as the current Administration has been, and we will actively work to get an effective and equitable international global warming agreement.

And, he might just send that signal to the world before or at the meeting in Poland as he has now hinted in a YouTube Video where he said:

"We will definitely have a representative there."

And a few minutes later he went on to say:

"I may not go personally.  I may send a representative, but we'll be represented."

He (and his representatives) likely won't provide any specific details on what exactly the US will do to address global warming as he'll need to work with Members of Congress to shape that approach.  But, I'm sure a lot of people will be whispering in his ear (and his advisors) to make a clear statement to the world that "the US is back".  A welcome relief from the past 7 years (and how many seconds?) of no leadership from the US. 

The second major task of the President-elect Obama will be to get his climate team together.  There is talk that he'll pull together his economic and national security team together right away...but here is a plug to add the climate team to list of the first teams to be put in place.  And this includes putting together his international climate negotiating team as he will need to start to:

  • Interject his Administration's ideas into the post-2012 international climate negotiations;
  • Outline current proposals (or elements of current proposals) that the US might be able to support (or that they might have problems with); and
  • Establish the US position in the lead-in to the post-2012 international climate agreement, including working with Congress on both the domestic climate legislation and the shape of US engagement in the international agreement.

So, what can we glean about his potential positions on both the domestic and international climate policy from his election platform?  Here is what Obama's platform says about key pieces of the puzzle-US domestic actions, how it will approach developing countries, and tackling emissions from deforestation.

What level of action will he be seeking in the US?  They will:

"start reducing emissions establishing strong annual reduction targets, and they will also implement a mandate of reducing emissions to 1990 levels by 2020" (Environment Platform) and they will "support implementation of a...system to reduce carbon emissions by the amount scientists say is necessary: 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050" (Energy Platform).   

What actions will they work to have major emerging economies undertake?

"...the only real solution to climate change requires all major emitting nations to join in the solution.  While it is time for America to lead, developing nations like China and Brazil must not be far behind in making their own binding commitments" (Energy Platform).

What will they do about technology support to developing countries?  They:

"will create a Technology Transfer Program within the Department of Energy dedicated to exporting climate-friendly technologies, including green buildings, clean coal and advanced automobiles, to developing countries to help them combat climate change" (Environment Platform).

How will they grapple with global warming pollution from deforestation?

"A comprehensive strategy to combat global warming must address tropical deforestation which accounts for approximately 20 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Reducing rates of tropical deforestation will not only slow greenhouse gas emissions but will also protect the livelihoods of local people and the abundance of biodiversity inextricably linked to those forests.  By offering incentives to maintain forests and manage them sustainably, the United States can play a leadership role in dealing with climate change" (Environment Platform).

These are all positive framing approaches for helping to get an international agreement to address global warming:

  • US leadership -- a recognition that US will need to lead with its own domestic emissions limits;
  • Working with developing countries to reduce their own emissions and supporting them with technology assistance (as I discussed here as the essence of the developing country mitigation framework agreed in Bali; is the shape of the emerging discussion on sectoral approaches; and is starting to be said publicly by South Africa, South Korea, and China);
  • Supporting efforts to address emissions from deforestation (as I discussed here, here, and here).    

Now the difficult work begins to translate those platforms into US law and an international agreement.  And even with the sea change created by new US leadership, it won't be an easy task (with the dire financial straits) but it can and must be done (as NRDC's President Frances Beinecke discussed).

I look forward to working hard over the next couple of months to kick-start the transition process so that the new Administration and Congress are ready for restoring US leadership in the international global warming agreement.