In Delhi, World Leaders Underscore U.S. Outlier Status on Climate

So often in American politics, we focus on the next news cycle or the next election. Traveling to Delhi and listening to world leaders talk about the challenges of building a clean energy future and promoting sustainable growth has been a refreshing opportunity to look at the bigger picture.

At the Delhi Sustainable Development Summit last week, Former President of Chile Ricardo Lagos told the crowd: “Politicians think of the next election. Real politicians think of the next generation.”

The trouble with being an American abroad, however, is that I am frequently reminded of the United States’ failure to demonstrate long-term leadership on the most critical issue facing the planet: climate change.

India’s Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh talked about climate initiatives at the summit, describing India’s efforts to “show leadership internationally by taking domestic action on both mitigation and adaptation.” He said it was time to “stop interpreting Cancun and start implementing Cancun,” and said the next round of climate talks in Durban were an opportunity to identify concrete next steps.

But he also said that in terms of a global regime to reduce carbon emissions, it would be “difficult to get the U.S. onboard.”

That sentiment was echoed by Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, the former prime minister of Norway and a special envoy on climate change for the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon.

She said that over the many years she has been working on the issue of climate crisis, she has witnessed a coming together of different regions. European nations have come to agree with Latin American nations, and more recently with Asian states like India.

The great exception, of course, is the United States. It is really something to hear so many international leaders describe how the world community is coming together on climate solutions, but the United States remains the outlier.

I try to urge people here not to judge America’s intentions based solely on the failure of Congress to commit to climate action. I remind them that even though the Senate killed the prospect of a cap and trade program for reducing carbon emissions, President Obama is determined to move ahead. He is using the authority of the executive branch to reduce carbon from big polluters, and, in his State of the Union Address, he called on America to set a clean energy target of 80 percent by 2035.

Maybe America has the ability to take the long view after all.