Many American Presidents find their terms in office defined by one event: if we think of Nixon it was Watergate, Clinton it was the Monica Lewinsky affair and George Bush it was the war in Iraq.
Whilst many Americans may think that Obama’s Presidency will be defined on whether he succeeds in reforming health care at home, for millions elsewhere it is what he does on climate that really matters.
After the desperate years of the Bush Administration, when climate sceptics stalked the White House like a morbid plague, Obama’s election generated a huge expectation that at last meangingful action can be made on this issue.
So will 74 days left before Copenhagen what did we learn from yesterday’s UN Summit in New York and whether Obama will deliver in December?
What is apparent is that even the normally diplomatic Diplomats are getting publicly frustrated at the slow pace of progress. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon acknowledged that “The climate negotiations are proceeding at glacial speed. The world’s glaciers are now melting faster than human progress to protect them – and us.”
Obama – as one would expect – delivered a powerful oratory on the problems of climate and told the audience of some 100 heads of state and government that “unease is no excuse for inaction.”
He pledged that the US is “determined to act.” “The threat from climate change is serious, it is urgent, and it is growing,” Obama said. “And the time we have to reverse this tide is running out.”
The world “cannot allow the old divisions that have characterized the climate debate for so many years to block our progress,” he added. “All of us will face doubts and difficulties in our own capitals as we try to reach a lasting solution to the climate challenge.”
But for all the fine words, his speech lacked any new initiatives, and added no new momentum:
“Obama’s speech … was a huge missed opportunity which does nothing to break the logjam in international climate negotiations,” said Friends of the Earth’s Asad Rehman.
“It was really great to have the vision, but with just 70 days left to Copenhagen, it is time to put some substance on the table,” added Steve Howard, the founder of the Climate Group.
“We need President Obama to step up and say, ‘I need an economy-wide emissions cap,’ ” said Andrew Deutz, director of the Nature Conservancy’s international government relations program. “ ‘I need money to negotiate. I need Waxman-Markey passed by X date so I can go to Copenhagen and negotiate.’ ”
Obama’s inability to put forward anything meaninful was upstaged by China’s president, Hu Jintao, who spoke of reducing the “carbon intensity” of his economy and cutting emissions as a percentage of future economic output, by a “notable” margin although, that of course was unspecified.
Hu’s pronouncements are not nearly enough, but are being seen as important step forward in terminology at least. Finally China has mutterd the dreaded words: cliamte change. “These announcements should sweep away the canard that China is not willing to reduce emissions,” said Dan Dudek, the director of the China programme for the Environment Defence Fund. “Is it enough to make Copenhagen a success? That will depend upon whether Hu’s new climate initiatives propel Obama and the Senate into action on controlling greenhouse gases.”
But as the Times newspaper puts it this morning the fact that China stole the show could give Obama the political leverage he needs to get momentum for a deal in the US:
“In a calculated move, China, which has just overtaken the US as the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, stole the show at yesterday’s special United Nations summit on climate change with plans to pour billions of dollars into energy-saving technology and nuclear power,” said the paper.
It continued: “China — which has already committed a quarter of its $450 billion stimulus package to clean energy — has its eye on the vast emerging market for green technology and nuclear power. Mr Obama is warning Congress that the US will miss out if it holds back. China’s command of the spotlight yesterday may give him the challenge that he has been seeking.”
Obama has to deliver at Copenhagen. Yesterday Ban Ki-Moon also asked heads of state to set aside national concerns and become “global leaders.”
If Obama promises and delivers radical American CO2 cuts he will be a true global leader, if not, for all the hype of his election and first year in office, he could be dismissed as a world leader pretend, to quote the famous REM song….